BY LINDSAY TESSIER
Like a fire, depression can start off small and manageable but quickly roar out of control, spreading to all areas of our lives, affecting relationships, jobs, school and hobbies.
Daniel Levine, a second-year student in Conestoga;s pre-service firefighter program, has battled both.
The 22-year-old with a passion for firefighting and volunteer work was diagnosed with severe depression at the age of 15.
Athletic and soft-spoken, Levine talks about how in the darkest phase of his depression he was unable to do anything at all.
“I skipped school; I locked myself in my room and shut out the world. I let life pass me by and sunk deeper into my hole.” He felt depression was an impenetrable dome surrounding him.
It wasn’t until a friend reached out to him that Levine understood that he needed help.
Anne Moore, manager of Accessibility Services for Students with Disabilities at Conestoga College, says they are seeing a dramatic rise in the number of students with mental health issues. She says that 197 students with mental health issues registered with Accessibility Services in 2011-2012 compared to 119 students in 2008-2009.
“These numbers are consistent with most post-secondary institutions in Ontario,” Moore says. “It is also important to remember that a great many students experience mental health issues but do not register at all with Accessibility Services.”
Barbara Kraler, co-ordinator of Counselling Services, has also noticed an increase in the number of students asking for help. She says this increase isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it could mean students are feeling more comfortable accessing services for mental health issues.
Counselling Services offers free individual counselling to all students. Kraler says they are usually able to meet with a student fairly quickly, often on the same day or the next day.
“The most people have had to wait is a few days at our busiest times, compared to weeks in the community.” She says students dealing with a crisis situation would receive immediate attention.
Health Services can also refer students to Counselling Services and vice versa.
“We transfer back and forth a lot,” says Kraler. “A doctor might refer someone to us who could benefit from talking about stress in their life, and mental health disorders can sometimes be medical ailments in disguise, like thyroid problems or a B12 deficiency.”
Aboriginal students can also access Aboriginal Services which offers visits with Elders and traditional counselling.
Kraler says some students wait or refuse to get help because they still feel the stigma of talking to someone about mental health issues. She says many students believe they are “weak” if they are not coping.
Levine agrees that many people still view depression as a weakness.
Hearing Levine describe some of the gruelling physical tests he has to go through, such as climbing a flight of stairs while wearing a 50-pound vest, two 10-pound ankle weights and carrying a 75-pound garden hose, it’s hard to imagine anyone calling him weak.
But he admits he even felt that way himself for a long time. “I still feel like it can be a weakness if I let it control me and tell me what to do,” he says. “But it’s something that you have to recognize and challenge, not just try to cover it up.”
Levine believes that keeping quiet about depression only increases the stigma. That’s one reason he wants to share his story with others.
He says the “culture of silence” among firefighters can make it difficult to admit to mental health problems and that it’s more common to brush personal problems aside and go out for a drink instead.
“I want to try and break the stigma associated with it because I know that talking about it is what saved my life.”
He wants people to know that depression and other mental health disorders are illnesses, not weaknesses, and people shouldn’t be ashamed to seek help. He hopes that by talking about his experience with depression, he can help raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding it.
He encourages others who might be depressed to reach out to someone they trust.
“Find someone who you trust with every ounce of your being and talk to them about it and just let it all out – whether it’s a scream, yell, fight, whatever it is, let them hear it because if they are a good friend or someone you trust they should be there the next morning for you.”
Levine sought counselling and, although finding the right person to talk to about his depression was a challenge, he has since found a counsellor whom he describes as “fantastic” – as well as receiving help from friends and family.
He says having a good support system is crucial. “It’s everything. Without it I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.
“Through all the roughest times, my best friend was always there for me. He was the first person to kind of break through for me.” Levine says he’s tried to take that support and use it as inspiration to be a positive influence for others.
“I want to be a positive influence for my cousins who grew up kind of like brothers to me. So every day I try to be a better person so they can look at me and be better people themselves.”
“I have my role model, who’s my grandfather, who I pull my positive influences from and try to be like. Because he is the best man in the world and if I’m ever half the man that he is then it’ll be enough for me. Then I have my rocks who stop me from falling back to where I was – which is my best friend and my mom. Without them I would still be down there.”
Levine is doing better now. He says he’s grateful to wake up in the morning feeling genuinely happy to be alive.
“At the moment I like to think that I’ve beaten it. I can feel that it’s still there but it doesn’t control my life anymore.”