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SEPTEMBER 21, 2017

When I finally arrived at the hospital, a tired-looking nurse showed me to my room — a small cube with two desks and a bathroom without a door. She introduced me to my roommate, Danielle. Once the nurse left, I unpacked my minimal belongings and sat on my bed, stealing glimpses of Danielle out of the corner of my eye. She looked pretty much like any other middle-aged woman that I’ve ever seen, but I found myself scrutinizing her every behavior, waiting for a sign that she was different — something that caused her to end up in here.

She broke the silence, her voice slow and even. “What are you in for?”

I responded, “Severe depression,” and contemplated whether to reciprocate the question. Thankfully, she answered before I could ask.

“I’m here for bipolar and schizophrenia,” she said, averting her eyes slightly. I didn’t know how to respond. Despite my extensive history in clubs focused on mental-health activism and psych classes, I felt a horrible sense of fear and repulsion — a need to avoid those diagnosed with schizophrenia, not only out of fear for my safety, but also to avoid being associated with her. I was different because I didn’t experience delusions or rapid bursts of anger. I didn’t belong with her.

In the psychiatric ward at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, days are filled with terrifyingly elaborate group therapy sessions. I resolved to stay in my room and ignore the groups altogether. Yet, I was told by the girl in the room next door that the only way to get out early is to attend and actively participate in every group. So, in an effort to escape, I threw myself into the groups with faked enthusiasm.

And yet, though I was committed to remaining detached and merely going through the motions, it was impossible not to be impacted by the other patients around me.

I became close with Jessica, a graduate student struggling with depression and self-harm who was also hilarious and a talented artist. I spent late nights in the common room with Gus, another UC Berkeley student whose workload and concentration in philosophy aggravated his severe anxiety. And our therapy groups were largely mediated by Laurie, a mother who needed to improve herself before she could return to supporting her family. I found myself not an outsider, but a vital part of a group of people working to improve themselves.

Though united by their struggles with mental illness, the other patients had separate lives outside of the hospital where I met them. So many of us who are seemingly normal struggle under the surface. But somehow it’s barely talked about, even though one in every five adults experiences a mental illness.

Toward the end of my stay, I found myself alone with Danielle in our room again. This time, I felt more confident and genuinely interested in what she had to say. I turned toward her — she was drying her hair with an undersized towel with the practiced ease of someone who had been in and out of hospitals since she was 17. We talked easily about superficial topics, and then something in her expression changed.

“You know, this is the first time someone has really listened to me in over 10 years,” she said.

I blinked. “What do you mean?”

“My family doesn’t believe me even when I’m telling the truth, because they think everything I say is a delusion.”

I could feel her words digging into the pit of my stomach. Once again, I didn’t know how to respond, not because I was scared of her or repulsed by her, but because I couldn’t imagine how hard it was to not be taken seriously by the ones she loves.

My relationship with Danielle and the other patients in the hospital illuminated an important distinction between an individual and the illness they are suffering from. Many UC Berkeley students struggle with mental illness, but in our obsession with maintaining a facade of perfection, we often neglect our mental health. I hope to expose how relevant this “invisible” issue is to the greater Berkeley community.

The two top concerns for UC Berkeley students accessing the Tang Center’s counseling services are anxiety and depression — but there is a myriad of other issues that students face, and each person experiences mental health in a unique way. Substance abuse issues, homelessness or LGBTQ+ identities mold the way others experience mental illness. I aim to explore mental health and its impacts in multiple expressions and allow more people like Danielle to be heard.

Isabel Lichtman writes the Thursday blog on mental health. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @isabellichtman.
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OCTOBER 13, 2017