Conquering the Stigma

Mar 062007
Authors: Amy Robinson

Students often struggle with the transition into college. But for Emily Schleicher, who suffers from bipolar disorder, the move was a little more intense.

“My parents were scared to let me go off by myself,” the sophomore anthropology major said. “I had to find a doctor right away.”

Students with mental disorders face burdens many students may not have dealt with, specifically, seeking counseling, medication and support – needs that leave some students with mental illness feeling stigmatized.

“I’ll go off of medication for six months, then I’ll have another depressive episode and I’ll have to go back on it to even myself out,” Schleicher said. “I’d like to say I don’t need it, but sometimes I really do.”

Schleicher isn’t alone.

Mental disorders are fairly common. About one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function.

Bipolar disorder affects about 5.7 million people every year. Typically, it begins around age 25.

Schleicher, who was diagnosed when she was 16, has learned to cope with her disorder with the help of counseling. But in high school, she said talking about her mental illness seemed taboo.

“It was scary,” she said. “Nobody else knew about it (bipolar disorder) or if they had heard about it, they weren’t sure what it was.”

Schleicher said the disorder was difficult to deal with at first.

“First I was depressed, then I became manic,” she said. “I felt really happy and had lots of energy. It (being manic) was intense. .When I was manic, I felt fearless. I couldn’t focus. I didn’t care about money, and risk-taking felt good.”

Another important factor in dealing with bipolar disorder is letting friends and family know what is going on. They can serve as an important support network, Schleicher said.

“I’ll probably be bipolar the rest of my life,” she said. “Right now, it’s under control. It might go away.”

Last January, Schleicher joined Active Minds, an on-campus organization that works to reduce the stigma students with mental disorders face. She now serves as secretary for the group.

Although the disorder has a profound effect on her life, Schleicher said having bipolar disorder does not define her.

“I am a normal person. Being bipolar is more emotional than a physical disease. It’s also biological,” she said. “They don’t judge me by it. They understand I’m not crazy and its something I’m dealing with. I am a person first.”

///For the most part, Schleicher said college has been a good experience. She is able to handle the good as well as the bad.

“When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I felt kind of relieved. It wasn’t just me. Something could be done about it and there were people there to help,” Schleicher said.

She added that having bipolar disorder has not really affected her relationships.

“If I feel I know somebody well enough – whether it’s for a couple of hours or weeks – I’ll tell them,” Schleicher said.


While bipolar disorder is less common than other disorders, social anxiety is not. About 15 million people suffer from the disorder, according to the NIMH.

Charissa Mueller, a junior sports medicine major, has suffered from social anxiety since middle school.

“From sixth to tenth grade, I went through a lot of teasing. I was really self-conscious and it was tough,” she said. “In high school, things got better. I was able to assert myself more. I just thought I was easily embarrassed.”

When it was time to go off to college, Mueller said she believed her days of anxiety and embarrassment were behind her. She was ready to start a new phase in life – that was more than two years ago.

“Second semester, my best friend moved out of the dorms, I broke up with my boyfriend and I was in a car accident,” she said. “I was depressed and didn’t want to go out. I felt like people were looking at me and thinking, ‘What a freak.'”

According to Michael Daine, a psychologist and director of the University Counseling Center, mental illness is an increasing concern on college campuses.

“Some students come to campus with already-existing psychological disorders,” he said. “It is estimated that between 7 to 12 percent of students will experience some type of mild to severe problem while on campus.”

In a short period of time, Mueller’s life turned 180 degrees. She was back to where she had started with the same old haunting feelings of anxiety and embarrassment by her side.

“I thought, ‘What did I do wrong,'” Mueller said. “I was scared to show people how I felt. I was crying, but I went to class and pretended like it was all OK. I wasn’t willing to say much.”

The hardest part, Mueller said, was not having anyone to share those feelings with. When Mueller came back to school the following fall, she said she realized things didn’t seem right.

The sophomore did whatever she could do to avoid embarrassing situations, even if that meant going out of her way to accomplish everyday tasks. She continued to be immensely self-conscious.

Mueller recalls a time when she tried to open a locked door at Braiden Hall. A crowd of people was standing nearby. Mueller said was so embarrassed, she refused to go by Braiden even a couple of days after the incident.

It seemed like no matter what she did, Mueller became anxious. She couldn’t even put a letter in the mail without feeling like she was doing it wrong. Her existence began to seem like one big panic attack.

“I couldn’t focus or do anything without feeling like I would look bad,” she said. “If something freaks you out bad enough, it can ruin your whole afternoon.”

To gain relief from her constant anxiety, Mueller began to engage in risky behaviors that she normally wouldn’t.

“I would invite guys to come over and I’d make out with them,” she said. “It made me feel worthy.”

As soon as the make-out session was over, however, she would kick the guy out and she was left to deal with the same old feelings of low self-esteem and emptiness.

“I was scared to death,” Mueller said. “I began having thoughts of suicide. I realized I couldn’t deal with things on my own anymore.”

Mueller started going to the University Counseling Center and attending group therapy. In doing so, she realized there were other people going through the same things she was, which made her feel less alone. The counselors helped her take the initial steps she needed to in order to make the necessary changes in her life.

“I am just now realizing – I’m a good person,” she said. “It took me a long way to get there.”

Although she no longer attends therapy, Mueller has a built-in support group.

“Social anxiety is something I have to deal with more on my own,” she said. “Family and friends are important links in the chain.”

Mueller is learning new, positive ways to cope with her disorder. Just like any illness, she has her good days and bad days.

Part of those coping skills includes writing her own music, going for drives and spending time with people she trusts. She is also vice president of Active Minds.

“It’s tough to make changes and keep working on it, but I’ll be happier in the long run,” she said. “Social anxiety does not affect me as much, but it will always be there. I’m not going to let it ruin my life.”

So far, Mueller has not had to take medication for her disorder.

Not Being Controlled by Anxiety

Whether or not it may seem like it, Mueller said she is making progress. She is not as afraid as she used to be about doing things like standing up in front of the class and giving a speech.

“I am not that different from other people. I go to school, listen to music and go to the occasional party. I am the same as everyone else. I just have social anxiety,” Mueller said. “I am becoming a better person. I don’t want anyone to feel how I felt. Know that you can go get help.”

Schleicher and Mueller are not alone in their struggles against mental illness. Nearly half of the people who suffer from a mental disorder meet the criteria for two or more disorders. Visit the NIMH’s Web site at to learn more about mental health.

Breakout Box

From psychologist Michael Daine, Director of University Counseling Center

Early Warning Signs of Depression or Anxiety:

o Avoidance in social activities

o Sleep disturbance

o May stop going to class

o Difficulty taking care of oneself

o Women may get sad, experience moodiness

o Men may get agitated, angry and short-tempered

Students who believe they are suffering from a mental disorder should contact the University Counseling Center at 491-6053. The center is located in Clark Building Room C-36 and open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Walk-in appointments are available.

For more information about Active Minds e-mail faculty adviser Kathleen McKinney at

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