Patience, forgiveness key to achieving a degree with mental illness, says spring grad
Amanda Parsons came to Memorial University to feel closer to her late father.
“He passed away when I was really young, so I never got a chance to meet him,” she said. “Going to university in his home province was a chance to be closer to him.”
Born in British Columbia, the spring bachelor of science (chemistry) graduate started at Memorial right out of high school, but eventually found the pressure of her studies unmanageable.
“My mental illness started appearing in and impacting my life when I was in high school, but I was excited enough by the new experience of starting university that it was pushed down for a little while,” she said.
“By my second year and onwards it became progressively worse as the course load built up.”
Source of stress
Ms. Parsons struggled with depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm and an eating disorder. Stress exacerbated her conditions.
She says many people arrive at university with the preconceived notion that an undergraduate program must be done in four years, and that if high school was easy, university will be as well.
“Then you’re caught off guard – you have imposter syndrome and wonder why you’re here with all of these people who are smarter than you are,” said Ms. Parsons. “You have to be prepared that university might interfere with your health and be willing to be patient with yourself and make accommodations if that happens.”
She went through four years at Memorial taking a reduced course load before ultimately suffering a breakdown and taking two years off.
During that time Ms. Parsons made four trips to the Waterford Hospital and had two week-long stays there.
It was during her first stay when psychiatrists there referred her to the HOPE Program, a provincial intensive outpatient treatment program for individuals with eating disorders.
“I went there for a year and finally got my stuff sorted,” she said. “It was hard to find someone equipped to deal with how ferocious my mental health problems were.”
Kind and understanding professors
Eventually Ms. Parsons returned to Memorial for two more years to finish her degree.
This time she reached out to her professors to explain she was dealing with chronic mental health issues that could affect her ability to work.
“I didn’t look or seem sick, so I thought they wouldn’t be accommodating,” she said. “I didn’t have to go into specifics, but there were times I had to say things like, ‘I am not able to present my best work to you right now and I would really like to, could I have a couple more days on this paper?’
“Across the board everyone was understanding, which made me feel really silly for taking so long to ask for help. Dr. Michael Katz, one of my chemistry professors, was incredibly kind.”
She says once she got treatment, she realized how much her mental illness had impacted her enjoyment of her studies.
“That should have been my biggest red flag, because I adore science, chemistry and math,” she said.
“The fact that my depression took away my ability to enjoy what I was there for made it difficult to want to continue and I did consider dropping out. However, I’m in a much better place now.”
Advice to new students
Her most important advice to students working through their own mental health issues?
Be patient and forgiving with yourself. Everyone is on their own path.
“Things might get worse before they get better, but it’s always worth it to keep going.”
“There’s a million different ways to get through a program. Also, be mindful of where your head is at and don’t brush off things that may be warning signs. If you are stressed out and thinking ‘It would be so much easier if I were dead,’ that’s not a healthy response.”
She also says to allow yourself to believe that you deserve help and to not be afraid to ask for accommodations – not just from your professors, but from your friends, as well.
“Don’t push them away. And remember that recovery is not linear. Things might get worse before they get better, but it’s always worth it to keep going.”
Sometimes it’s hard to look back at her eight-year journey, Ms. Parsons says.
“You’re proud, but it’s very melancholic. I wish I could go back in time to tell myself, ‘You’re going to get through it, I promise. Just hang in there. You’re going to get to do the science you always wanted and it’s going to be great.’ I just want to give old me a hug.”