Conference shines light on depression
Using statistical information and gripping personal stories, speakers at the Depression on College Campuses conference emphasized how common the illness is among college students and others.
The event at the Rackham Building and the Michigan League was designed to highlight the issue of depression on campuses and the connections to stress, sleep and alcohol. About 700 people attended, including faculty, students and health care professionals from U-M and people from various other states.
Author Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, shared her experience of what it's like to "get hit young" with bipolar illness. As a senior in high school, "I lost my mind rapidly," Jamison said during the March 9-10 conference.
At first, in her manic period, she frantically wrote, read and made unrealistic plans for the future. She was "transfixed" by the beauty of the universe. "I felt I could do anything," she says.
The manic faze burned out, and she "came to a grinding halt." When she read, nothing made sense; the process of thinking was torturous.
"I was used to my mind being my best friend," she said. "Now, all of a sudden, my mind had turned on me. It was incapable of concentrated thought." She thought of death frequently.
College was "a recurring nightmare" of dramatically shifting moods. Jamison always had been taught to keep her problems to herself, and she continued to do that even as she grew more and more out of control.
After hearing a lecture about depression during a psychology class, she went to the health service at the University of California, Los Angeles. She sat outside for a long time, then left without ever going inside.
She only received help years later after becoming sick enough that her condition rose to the level of a medical emergency; lithium and psychotherapy saved her life, she said.
Jamison said she would like to see the creation of national guidelines telling faculty members on college campuses and others what to do when they suspect a student or someone else is suffering from mental illness.
"Sometimes colleges just have to act," she said. "(But) there aren't really good guidelines."
Also sharing his story was John Howell, safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Seven months before the team won last year's Super Bowl, Howell felt "crippled" by panic. He no longer wanted to play football, even though that had been his dream most of his life.
Coach Jon Gruden told Howell the team supported him and that he should get the help he needed, though Howell still didn't know the cause of his anxiety. Howell left training camp and planned to quit football altogether. His mother and wife said they thought he was depressed, but Howell was convinced he was too "mentally tough" to have the illness.
Then he learned that his fathersomeone Howell thought of as the toughest guy of allalso suffered from depression. This led Howell to get help through therapy and medication, allowing him to return to training camp.
While his teammates didn't know at the time that he was being treated for depression, he was concerned about how they would react to a player who missed 20 practices during his 10-day absence.
The answer came from defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who, with his 300-pound frame, hugged Howell and said it was good to have him back. Later, Howell went public with his struggle with depression in a story in ESPN the Magazine. His teammates and other players in the league have been supportive since the publication of the article, he said.
Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, emphasized that depression is extremely common; 16.2 percent of U.S. adults will have major depression at some time in their lives, he said. Though it once was believed to be a disease that began later in life, it now is known that depression often begins early, he said.
He noted that the highest risk group for suicide is white males older than 65, and that the rate of suicide among men in general is four times greater than among womeneven though women suffer from depression at higher rates than men.
The risk of suicide also spikes upward among people ages 15-19, when many people begin to go to college.
One possible way for college campuses to address the problem is by following the lead of the Air Force, which launched an ambitious program in the mid-1990s after a big increase in suicides, Insel said. The Air Force worked at addressing the stigma of depression and seeking help, and made a community-wide effort to increase social support and other protective factors, he said.
Timed to coincide with the conference, U-M unveiled a new Web site and a map showing locations of mental health services. These resources and other recommendations for helping students with mental illness were made by the Mental Health Work Group. For more information, visit http://www.umich.edu/~mhealth/.
Sponsors of the depression conference were the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, Medical School, the Depression Center, the National Institute of Mental Health and the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration. Several U-M units provided support for the event.