Watch the following Tedx Talk, featuring college student Jack Park. In this talk, Park shares his story of living with a mental disorder and revisits some of the ways he found help and hope. He makes the case for seeing mental illness in a new light, so that people can begin to address some of the issues associated with suicide, depression, and other preventable mental disorders.
Shedding Light on Student Depression | Jack Park | TEDxPenn
-You know, when I was a young kid, my mom used to always tell me, “Did you brush your teeth?” before I went to bed every night. Actually, who am I kidding? When I go back home, my mom still asks me if I brushed my teeth every night before I go to bed. I’m, like, 21.
But a few years ago, my mom started to ask me a different question. Hey, did you take your medication before I went to bed? I take lithium before I go to sleep, almost every day. I took it last night before this conference, too.
Lithium. I know. I know what that is. That’s the lithium-ion battery. It’s what makes laptop and cell phone batteries, right? But why is it in my body?
During the second semester of my freshman year, I was a completely different person. I hated myself for weeks and weeks. Nothing gave me joy or happiness. I had slow cognition. I started to stutter in class. I saw no purpose in anything, no worth. I barely eat. Day after day, I even had suicidal thoughts. Living was painful and meaningless anyway. Why live?
One day in my dorm, I almost lost myself to my suicidality. Gasping for life, I then finally decided I need some help. I called my dad, who immediately told my mom to fly over here from Korea and take me to a psychiatrist right away.
I was diagnosed, MDD, Major Depressive Disorder. Although recommended to be hospitalized, I ended up just staying in my room instead for four months. I was on a medical leave.
Depression was not, I had a really bad day, I had a really bad week. But it was, I’m worthless and, for my family, I’m clearly better off dead. They’ll be much more happy when I’m gone. For four months, every moment I was awake.
Depression was more painful than that time in the hospital where I broke my clavicle. I was snowboarding. That’s the closest reference point I can think of in terms of physical pain, so far in my life.
However, soon I learned that my DSM diagnosis was not of major depressive disorder but actually bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder includes a manic episode in addition to the depressive episode.
In mania, I almost didn’t sleep. I talk fast. I had countless world-changing business ideas. I was arrogant, and I was on a ridiculous buying spree. I drank and smoked in parties every night with different people, for 40 days and nights straight. My friends and family thought I was going crazy, but just on the other direction.
Slowly, I realized that I was very abnormal. My psychiatrist told me that I was manic and that taking the lithium might help me prevent future mania or depression, if taken regularly for the rest of my life.
I then promised myself to be more stable, and later on decided to return to Penn, too. Now I’ve been taking lithium for three years, but first, in secret, what do I say to my friends? I hid my pill bottles from my roommates. When I was go into therapy, I’d always just say I’m going to buy something from the bookstore, because the bookstore is right next to Penn’s counseling.
But last winter of 2014, a total of six Penn students ended their own lives over a period of 15 months, one after another. It reminded me of my own painful and dangerous suicidality when I was a freshman here.
Hearing that news broke my heart and brought me to tears. I wanted to do something. I wanted to anything I could in order to reverse this trend and address this issue, because I will never forget how much pain I was in and how close to actual death I went to.
After weeks of thoughts and prayer, I first tell my close friends about my past history and current condition. And then I decide to share to the Penn community. I start from a few hundred likes on my Facebook, and views on YouTube, and notes on Tumblr, and shares on articles featuring that post.
I thought it was crucial for students in distress to reach their social networks, whether it be their friends, their parents, their psychological or psychiatric services, if necessary, without much stigma. When your teeth hurt, you think of visiting a dentist or chewing gum from a dispenser pen.
When you are suffering mentally or emotionally however, counseling or therapy is not really one of your options in your mind. I experienced and witnessed some other coping strategies common in college, sleeping in, watching television, eating, binge drinking, smoking, drugs, hookups, or even just working harder to get a better result as a coping mechanism for the stress.
Dental health is an acceptable topic, but why is mental health sounding very strange? Wait, wait, wait. Aren’t you just sad? Aren’t you just going through a stressful, tough time? Aren’t you just depressed like everybody else?
Here’s the problem, the same word has two different meanings. Hey, how are you doing today? Oh, actually, I’m feeling really depressed right now. What does that mean? The same word depression could either mean unhappiness or clinical depression.
Naturally, it’s easier to downplay what could be a medical condition into just being sad or weak. Some could just say that my suicidality when I was a freshman was just an early sophomore slump. I was just, you know, common slump in college, an identity crisis.
Well, I’ll give you that. Being right in between adolescence and adulthood, college is actually a crucial stage of self identity formation. My prefrontal cortex– which, guys, my emotion and my decisions– is not even fully mature yet. But under excessive and unhealthy self pressure or parental or societal pressure, students often– and they actually do– create harmful life habits for themselves, which can trigger a real mental disorder for those with a biophysical, psychosocial vulnerabilities.
Now, imagine this conversation on campus. Hey, man, what are you doing later tonight? Oh, after this bio class? I’m just finishing my lab. I need to go get a good grade on that one.
Perfectly normal college conversation, right? But notice this. The have tos or the need tos in our daily lives are self-directed, authoritative words.
Dr. William Mace, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, who’s also passionate about college mental health, claims that these can control our emotional life with either/or, right or wrong, black or white value judgments. You have to do this today. You should do that today, but you didn’t, but you couldn’t.
Now, the same conversation could sound like this. Oh, after bio class? I want to go finish my lab today. I’d like to get a good grade on that one.
With this process for myself, I’m trying to make the to-do list into want-to-do lists. I can recognize my own voice in my life with more want tos or like tos. I don’t have to. I want to. This helps reduce unhealthy self pressure for me.
I didn’t have to deliver a speech today because I’m a mental health advocate, but I wanted to. If you think you don’t have a choice in your mind, then you actually don’t have a choice in your mind. You don’t have to do something ever. Just be willing to be accepting of the consequence of not doing that action.
My friends in college, you don’t have to finish that biolab. You don’t have to join clubs or that team or rush. You don’t have to lose or gain weight or dressed nice. You don’t have to go to that party on the weekend.
You don’t have to do well in your classes. You don’t have to research or volunteer. You don’t have to apply for those jobs or grants or grad schools. You don’t have to graduate in four years, even. And after graduation, you don’t have to know exactly what you’re doing. We might all want to do these things, but we don’t ever have to.
Self care for mental health, in particular, should be much more prioritized than it is today. Mental disorders, suicidality, takes away too many lives. In fact, after car accidents, suicide is the second leading cause of death for the United States in college campuses. Like I mentioned, it took away six student lives in Penn last year. And actually, during this 10-minute speech, 15 more people ended their lives around the world.
But just even in the United States alone, last year over 1,000 college students ended their own lives on campuses across this country. That’s at least two or three students today.
How to prevent student suicides? There is no simple solution. I wish I knew. But every student is so different. I’m starting from one at a time, starting from myself. For me, my mental disease breeds self-hate and self-pity. I battle that with my belief that God loves me. I’m so wonderfully and fearfully made, so who am I to not love myself. Last winter I wanted to share that testimony to my friends at Penn.
I’m trying to save my own life every day, save it from excessive self pressure, stress and shame, shame that blocks me from getting that help when I need it, from psychiatric or psychological services, because I think it makes me look weak.
Last night, I took my lithium, and tonight I’ll take it again, too. I don’t have to because my psychiatrist told me to, but I want to, at least for now. I’m not actually hiding it from my roommates and withdraw anymore or anyone.
What’s my future like? A life sentence of medication? Well, yeah, perhaps, but still another sacred chance at life. Mental illness is real, painful, reoccurring, and often lethal. If you feel like you need help, please get the help. For me, suicide prevention is not preventing suicides or preventing deaths. It’s about living more and finding your purpose and joy in each of your lives. Nobody can be actually saved from death, after all.
Lastly, if your loved ones, friends, or family need help, please help get the help. It’s hard to get help yourself when you’re at such a horrible place to begin with. You don’t need to be a therapist to have a therapeutic conversation. And therapy and medication, they help for sure. But at the end, love heals people.
I thank my parents, family, and friends who loved me back then and love me til now. And I thank God I’m still around, and be able to deliver a speech to you today. Thank you.
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