This post is the second in a new series of guest conversations called Voices on Mental Health. I am honored to showcase inspirational people with unique and important perspectives on mental illness.
Our second conversation is with Leah Ganssle. Leah is currently a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) where she is pursuing a Bachelors of Social Work and hopes to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She is the founder and president of the NAMI chapter on her campus and recently started to write for The Mighty. Leah is fired up about being a positive and hopeful voice about mental illness for teens and young adults. I first met her a few months ago when we presented together to a huge group of teens (500+) at local high school ethics day event. When she spoke I was blown away. She shared her personal story in a frank and open-hearted way, and she truly connected with the young adults in the room. Below she offers the insight that teaching kids about mental illness early on – even in school – can help to reduce stigma and help young people learn to take good care of themselves. We all have a lot to learn from this bright and philanthropic young woman, and it will be a gift to see how her mental health advocacy continues to grow in the future.
Amy: Did you have an “aha moment” when you realized that you needed help in dealing with your emotional wellness? What happened?
Leah: There’s the saying, “High school is the best four years of your life!” For me, high school was me barely keeping afloat, with weights tied around my ankles. I couldn’t really tell you when I realized what I was feeling was more than a teenage mood swing, but I did spend a lot of time in my high school guidance counselor’s office. Waking up for school – already not an invigorating activity – became painful, and walking through its front doors gave me fear like no other. I felt stupid, out of place, ugly and worthless. It got to the point where I couldn’t sit in a classroom without feeling like I needed to leave immediately, usually because I needed to cry.
It happened to be time for the annual school depression screening. I looked at the piece of paper and laughed. I felt all of the symptoms I was reading, but it couldn’t have been that I was depressed. Could it? I was tempted to lie and continue pretending everything was fine, but something in me told me to tell the truth.
I answered honestly for all the questions, and then came to the last. It asked if we had ever considered suicide. I didn’t know what to answer. I knew if I said yes that it would be an immediate red flag and they’d have to call my mom. I didn’t know if I was ready for that to happen, but I continued to answer honestly and indicated I had considered suicide. Sure enough, 30 minutes later I was called down to my counselor’s office. She called my mom, and we scheduled the screening at a behavioral health center.
Now let me tell you, I don’t know if this is the norm, but I was in that center for five hours of testing, answering math questions (ew), solving puzzles (gross) and answering questions about myself I didn’t even know the answer to (ugh). When all was said and done, a week later they told me I had Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
Amy: How did/how do your symptoms impact your everyday life as a young adult and as a student – things like friendships, relationships, work, activities? How do you know when it’s time to reach out for additional support?
Leah: I withdrew myself from everything. I was a dancer, but I stopped dancing. I played two instruments, but I stopped playing. I closed off from my friends and would go straight up to my room when I got home, usually to fall asleep. I ignored homework and other responsibilities and replaced them with sleeping and mindless tv watching. I had been a straight-A student, but I quickly dropped down to C’s. Some of this continued even after we identified what was going on, and after I came to college at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). I have become a much better student in college, but I still struggle with getting myself out of bed, keeping up with my activities, and being social. I’m a very stubborn person, so I have a tendency to wait until burnout or a depressive episode to reach out for additional help. Recently, however, I knew it was time to visit the student health psychiatrist at VCU when I could feel myself lacking in school again. Slipping up in high school was one thing, but college is another, and I am determined to succeed here.
Amy: What resources did your high school and college offer you that were helpful in dealing with mental illness? What would have been helpful that wasn’t available at that time?
Leah: What my high school offered was very limited. We did have a school psychologist, but just out of personal preference I chose not to see him anymore. I am more comfortable with a female practitioner than a male. College has also been kind of a difficult place to access resources. We have university counseling services, but they don’t receive enough funding or support to be able to help all the students that need it. I was placed on a wait list, and I’m technically still not off of it (almost two years later!). I ended up turning to the student health psychiatrist to start medication because I didn’t have any other consistent resources at the time. Luckily, the VCU Psychology Department offers low-cost counseling and group therapy provided by masters and doctoral candidates. Their wait list was much shorter and I got in almost immediately.
I think more funding needs to be provided to our university counseling services, because it is so hard to keep pushing myself to look for more on my own. I am very lucky in that I felt well enough to push forward, but it’s easy to get discouraged being turned away the first time.
Amy: It is estimated that one in five young adults, ages 13-18, live with a mental health condition. This is approximately 20% of all teens – a pretty big number. How do you think we can offer hope and encourage young people to feel ok about getting treatment?
Leah: The most important thing is to do whatever is best for you. There are so many different types of treatments, and you have options! Seeking treatment for a mental health condition is no different than seeking treatment for a physical condition, such as cancer or diabetes. It does not make you a weaker person! If we included mental health education in K-12 health classes, we could work on breaking the stigma early. I don’t remember every receiving a lesson on mental health in any grade, so I was very uninformed about symptoms, how to help a friend, and what resources were available to me.
Amy: You have become active in advocating for mental health awareness among young adults. How did you grow into this role? What inspires you to speak openly about your experiences, especially the painful ones?
Leah: When I was in a more comfortable place in high school, I decided that I never wanted anyone to feel the way that I did – and yet so many do. I realized that I was not even aware about mental health issues and I wanted to change that in my community. I started a small student organization in my high school for mental health awareness. I reached out to NAMI Northern Virginia to find my school group some volunteer opportunities, and they ended up taking quite a liking to me! NAMI invited me to speak on a panel, I volunteered with their office regularly, and I interned there the summer before college. I helped develop an event for young adults to foster discussion that they still use now, called SummerFest. When I moved to Richmond for college, NAMI Northern Virginia helped me get connected with the state office, NAMI Virginia, which then led to also getting connected with the local affiliate in this area, NAMI Central Virginia. I was able to join the NAMI National Young Adult Advisory Group, the Youth Move Virginia board (a program of NAMI Virginia), and I am the Founder/President of NAMI on campus at VCU. I give presentations in schools and at other public events as well.
I got involved with this work because I was inspired by the experiences of so many other young adults, friends, and family. It was hard for me to speak out about my own personal experience the first time, but I was reassured from the beginning that so many young adults relate to someone their own age, and it could change their whole world. The experiences that I’ve had with people telling me how grateful they are that I spoke somewhere, or that I have been able to help them, keeps me talking and advocating!
Through all of this, i have met people just like me. I have learned so much about different illnesses, the lives of others and how we can use our experiences to both help and inspire other people living with mental illness. I have gained not only an insight to the world of mental health, but to my own needs and well-being. I once again want to be here and fight for something. I feel ready to take on the world, and i want others to join me. I want all of us to look at mental health and say, “we need to fix this. We need to support people who are experiencing this.”
Amy: What is your message to young people today who may be experiencing mental illness?
Leah: You are not alone in dealing with mental illness. There are so many others in similar situations as you! I know it doesn’t seem like it – I thought for a long time that I was an outlier – but your experience is valid and so are you. Never be afraid to reach out to someone about how you are feeling, and remember that no feeling is too small to ask for help.