Mental health does not discriminate. It does not matter how one looks, acts, talks, is located geographically, age, history, etc. Any one person could be diagnosed with a mental disorder at any given time. In fact, one in five adults suffer from mental health disorder. Four college-aged women spoke openly about their mental health in hopes to raise awareness and remove the stigma of mental illness. Here are their stories.
From surviving to striving: Amber’s story
What does a bad day look like? For many people it may include being overly tired, being in a mood or maybe even not feeling quite like yourself. For some, these typical bad days are a part of their everyday life. For people like Amber McVaugh, a bad day would include a physical fight to get out of bed, constant crying, the feeling of life spiraling out of control and sometimes contemplating suicide.
McVaugh suffers from Bipolar 1 disorder, meaning she’s more manic than anything else and has rapid mood changes, and PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the tender, middle-school age of 13, McVaugh was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This did not come as much of a surprise, considering her mother and grandmother both suffer from bipolar disorder and her grandfather suffers from severe depression. What did come as a surprise was how young she was diagnosed.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the typical age range for those diagnosed with bipolar disorder is between 15-30, with the average age being 25. Although it is not uncommon for children to suffer, McVaugh’s diagnosis can be attributed to her focusing more on her body. McVaugh began starving herself in sixth grade. The hormonal imbalance that accompanied the starvation is believed to cause her bipolar disorder to appear so young. She was diagnosed while in seventh grade.
McVaugh struggled with her bipolar disorder from the onset. Beginning in seventh grade, McVaugh attempted suicide. A few years later, things changed. “It was at age 15 that I actually successfully [attempted suicide],” McVaugh said. “They were able to bring me back.” McVaugh had spent four months in the hospital after her successful suicide attempt.
Four years after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, McVaugh experienced a life-changing event. Her boyfriend at the time began abusing her. This abuse eventually led to him raping her at age 16. The rape became the spark to ignite McVaugh’s PTSD.
McVaugh was able to turn what many would see as a negative situation into an extremely positive one. Using her past experiences, McVaugh hopes to help others. She currently is president of the Active Minds chapter at Cabrini. She is also a crisis counselor. In the future, she plans on being a clinical psychologist.
Treatment wise, McVaugh takes vitamins instead of medication. She also has one-on-one therapy sessions. These sessions help McVaugh to cope and deal with panic attacks that typically stem from her PTSD brought on by the rape.
“If I could go back in time, I’d tell myself to hang in there,” McVaugh said. “It felt like every second was the end, but it wasn’t.”
McVaugh speaks some encouraging words. “Don’t always rely on medication.” Her story is a perfect example of striving without being on medication. Do not let your mental health get in your way, she says “It’s not always what it seems.”
Becoming healthy: Sarah’s story
In a society where there is so much of a focus on food, what happens when food becomes one’s enemy? This is reality for Sarah Ash.
Ash does not suffer from an eating disorder. It’s quite opposite, actually. She suffers from anxiety, but food has become her way of dealing. It soon became a subconscious coping mechanism.
As a child, Ash said she was always described as an anxious child. She never really thought anything of it.
While in eighth grade, Ash’s father passed away. Although extremely unfortunate, it only helped to bring Ash, her mother and sister even closer.
Ash’s turning point came her sophomore year of high school. It was discovered during a physical she had not gained any weight that entire year. She was put on a very laid-back meal plan. This meant that Ash’s calorie intake was monitored to assure she was putting more calories in than she was out. When this did not work, Ash began seeing a physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The two would meet regularly every other week. “One week I would gain two pounds and another week I would lose two pounds,” Ash said.
She was eventually hospitalized for one week due to dangerous fluctuations in heart rate and low weight. After being released from the hospital, Ash remained on a form of home-hospitalization. She describes this moment as hitting rock bottom.
For a while Ash was able to keep her anxiety under control. She was until she suffered a relapse her senior year. She spent another few days in the hospital, then again on home-hospitalization.
Ash made the decision to continue her education at Immaculata University. At summer orientation, however, she suffered a bad experience. This influenced her decision to remain at home for a year to study at the local community college. After a while this made Ash unhappy. She was the only one of her friends who had stayed home for college. “It wasn’t making me any healthier being at home,” Ash said. After some thought, she made the decision to transfer to Cabrini. She had gone to a small, Catholic high school, so she was familiar with the environment. Another interesting factor in Ash’s decision was her therapist had studied at Cabrini.
“I’m really proud of myself,” Ash said. “I’m not going to say I still don’t struggle with my eating ‘cause I do, but I can controll it much better now.” Ash is also extremely open with her mental illnesses. Her roommate has become her best friend; Ash is able to openly communicate her issues and can turn to her roommate for support.
“A lot of my coping mechanisms comes from sharing my stories.” One thing that has been extremely helpful was volunteering at Comfort Zone Camp, a bereavement camp for children.
For any who may be in similar situations as Ash, she offers some advice. “It’s OK to need help. It’s extremely important to reach out before your breaking point or hitting rock bottom.”
Although there are many stigmas surrounding mental health, Ash does not let that bring her down. “[My illnesses] have made me who I am, and I like who I am.”
Grief to relief: Ashley’s story
The last few weeks of high school is typically one of the most exciting times of a young person’s life to date. There is the excitement of prom, graduating and maybe even going on senior week. For one high schooler, this happy time went from happy to somber within a blink of an eye.
It was the day before Ashley Faison’s last final exam in senior year. Faison’s father was in an accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury. Because Faison was the oldest child and was also over 18, she was left to make all medical decisions on behalf of her father. This is a tough situation for anyone. This is an especially tough decision for an 18 year old. What makes it even worse is that some family members did not think Faison was acting with the best interest for her father in mind.
Faison’s father passed away. “During the time from his accident to the time he died, which was about a month, I experienced a lot of changes,” Faison said. “I graduated high school, started [preparing for] college and had to manage planning a funeral for the man who gave me life.” In the month’s time between his accident and his passing, Faison was not allowed to grieve properly. She eventually learned to hold her emotions in.
It was around this time Faison was diagnosed with depression.
Things eventually settled down and became normal again. Two years later, Faison’s longterm boyfriend of two-and-a-half years broke up with her. “From that moment even until now I’ve been dealing with a crazy demon that lives inside me, which is depression,” Faison said.
Faison’s battle with depression has not been an easy one. “For me, my depression consists of episodes where I feel like my life is crashing down. I constantly feel alone; sometimes it gets to the point where I feel better off dead than alive.”
Although Faison has these feelings, she has made the decision to get better for herself. “Recently, I learned that the only way to win is to fight and to change,” Faison said. “Although it hasn’t been the easiest process, I feel extremely better than I did when I was at my absolute lowest point in my life a few months ago.”
Faison has learned to cope in her own ways. She does things like making a schedule, eating better, working out, doing yoga exercises and facing her fear head-on about being alone. “If there’s anything I can say to anyone, it’s you aren’t alone.”
The road to healing: Chelsea’s story
Imagine being surrounded by mental disorders for an entire lifetime, something that has never been a taboo conversation topic since childhood. Of course, being a child it is impossible to completely understand the complexity of it. Something that one grows up with can still be extremely confusing once symptoms begin. This is Chelsea DiPompeo’s story.
It was clear rather early in DiPompeo’s life that she suffered from anxiety. Her parents’ suspicions were confirmed when she had a panic attack going into kindergarten.
At 13, DiPompeo experienced a devastating loss. Her best friend committed suicide. Shortly after, DiPompeo felt the effects of anxiety much more. It was not long after that her depression became more evident. Although her mother has anxiety and her father has depression, DiPompeo still wasn’t quite sure what to do. “I didn’t understand depression,” DiPompeo said. Not sure what else to do, DiPompeo turned to the internet. She does not recommend doing this.
After doing some research online, she learned coping mechanisms those with depression had used. These, unfortunately, are not the best ways to cope. DiPompeo initiated self-harm. It was not long after this that DiPompeo admitted herself into a hospital.
She remained at the hospital for a few days. While there, doctors trifled with the idea of borderline personality disorder. “I was very unstable,” DiPompeo said. “I didn’t know my options.” She was very cautious about going on medication. She saw how medication altered her mother’s personality and wanted to avoid that. She eventually gave in during her senior year and played around with a few different kinds of medication.
Things had not gotten much better. Her emotions began being ignored. This led to her not being able to distinguish between different emotions. “Am I always going to be this way,” DiPompeo questioned? She was also in an emotionally abusive relationship at the time. Not before long DiPompeo was unable to be left alone. She again checked herself into the hospital. This stay lasted three weeks.
During the latter stay, her doctors swapped the previous diagnosis of borderline personality disorder with bipolar disorder. This diagnosis made much more sense to DiPompeo. She had always thought her lows were depression and her highs were normal. During this stay she also learned other treatment options.
She started going to cognitive behavior therapy, which has worked the best for DiPompeo. Here she learned real coping mechanisms. Some of her favorites include worksheets where she says how she feels during a panic attack and how she feels afterwards, moving her hands and sitting on the ground to physically ground herself. She also made the decision to take some time off before going to college. In that time she would go to therapy regularly. The therapy sessions has happily replaced the overbearing need for medication.
DiPompeo is a huge advocate of therapy. “Talk to people; talk to anyone you can,” DiPompeo said. “Therapy can give you insight on who you are.” She recommends anyone go to therapy whether you have a mental illness or not. She sees talking to someone can help with even the smallest, most miniscule issue.
In addition to sharing her story, DiPompeo would also like to share advice to those who may possess a similar story. “Your bipolar-order is not your mood,” DiPompeo said. In regards to coping and moving forward, especially if one partakes in more destructive coping behaviors, DiPompeo has an especially powerful message for days that may not go as plan. “You are not a failure.”