Destigmatizing Mental Illness: Unanonymously Anonymous

When USF senior Julie Young started planning for Unanonymously Anonymous, a panel to destigmatize students living with addiction and mental health illness, she was in a much better place than this past summer. “I had my apartment in the Presidio and I was alone for the first month doing summer classes. It was just class, smoke, class, smoke, class, smoke,” Young said. “I decided I was going to kill myself right after I finished summer classes.”


In the same honest, frank manner that Young shared one of the lowest moments in her life, so did the two other panelists at Unanonymously Anonymous, who told their stories fighting depression and addiction. Young planned the event to show other students they’re not alone in battles against mental illness. This solidarity is something Young said helped her out of her own depression. Further, she wanted to support students struggling with mental illness in a way that felt less clinical than USF’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). She said, “At CAPS, everyone’s heads are down in the waiting room. I think there should be a way to show people if you can’t connect with a professional, you can connect with your community.” When it comes to mental health resources at USF, Young speaks from personal experience. She’s used many of USF’s mental health resources, like meeting with CAPS psychologists and living in USF’s sober-living house, Haven, during her junior year.


The panel included three speakers: Young, a USF student named Julia (who asked for her last name not to be published), and a USF graduate (who asked not to be named) who works as a nurse in San Francisco and struggles with alcoholism and eating disorders. After the panelists spoke, Young’s therapist and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) expert Francie Burkhard, explained how mindfulness and emotion regulation — both aspects of DBT — can be used when feeling overwhelmed or depleted. Because of the triggering experiences shared at Unanonymously Anonymous, a CAPS postdoctoral fellow, Elizabeth Johnson, also spoke about her department’s resources and was available to talk to students individually after the event.


Julie Young, planner of the event, tells the crowd of 30 her experiences with mental illness. HURSH KARKHANIS/FOGHORN


Julia, who has been sober since she was 16, began the panel by describing her journey towards sobriety. She said, “The first time I drank, I blacked out and didn’t come to until the next morning. And typically, if you’re 11 or 12 years old, you never want to touch alcohol again. Not me. I remember consciously thinking at the time, ‘Why would I ever not want to be drunk?’”


Over the course of the next five years, Julia’s substance abuse escalated from alcohol to ecstasy, adderall and cocaine. By the time she was 16, she had two felonies for burglary and six misdemeanors (all have been expunged now).


“I was seeing shadow people. I wasn’t sleeping for days at a time. I was getting really sick,” Julia said.


Julia didn’t get serious about becoming sober until she was faced with a life-changing decision: jail or rehabilitation with probation after. She chose rehab. Julia said, “I had heard the warnings about alcoholism. I had heard the warnings about drugs. But what was different to me was people were talking to me on the same plane; people who had been through what I had been through. They had lived the same experiences that I had. And they were better.” Even though Julia relapsed after her first time in rehab, she was able to graduate high school with a year of sobriety. Now, she has five and a half years to her name.


Young, along with at least two other students attending the event, expressed frustrations with CAPS, citing long wait times and overworked staff. Julia Brekka, a media studies senior, said, “I’ve never felt fulfilled there to be honest. One of the people I saw kept asking, ‘How does that make you feel?’ It felt very on-the-surface.”


Senior international studies major Isabelle Spies said, “I went [to CAPS] starting a year ago, but I gave up. I think I had some entry-level lady. She just didn’t provide feedback.” (Spies is also Young’s girlfriend).


Between Aug. 15 and Nov. 30 of this year, 523 students and 2,158 appointments were scheduled, according to the senior director of CAPS, Barbara Thomas. The CAPS staff member who attended Unanonymously Anonymous, Elizabeth Johnson, said the typical wait time for right now —  around finals week — is three and a half weeks for a non-crisis appointment.


“We’re struggling,” Johnson said. She explained that a staff of 15 (of which only seven are psychologists who work full-time at CAPS) serve the roughly 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students at USF.


Senior Director Thomas said, “One thing I can say definitively is USF CAPS is not alone in trying to manage a crush for services; it is a national phenomenon. We have developed additional non-clinical services to try to offset our wait for therapy.” Some of these services include the online “Anxiety Toolkit” and “CAPS After-Hours,” a confidential talk line open between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays and 24 hours on weekends and holidays. To access the talk line, call 415-422-6352 and chose option 2.


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