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When dealing with mental illness, help is only a phone call away

It started when I was an undergrad in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ottawa. I had just turned 18 and was still living at home. At first, I didn't understand what was happening to me. I learned later that the sudden waves of paralyzing anxiety that swept over me more and more frequently were "panic attacks." They struck especially when I was on campus: in the cafeteria, in corridors and even in class. My heart would pound, I would redden and perspire and struggle for control. I was sure that people around me could tell that I was "freaking out," which made things all the worse.

Feeling very self-conscious, I began to avoid the campus. I came downtown only to go to class, and then hurried home. I began to lose all of my confidence. I didn't recognize my new self. I dropped out of activities and saw less of my friends. I felt increasingly isolated and depressed. I just couldn't understand why this was happening to me, or what I could do about it. It seemed that there was no one I could confide in. I didn't feel that I could talk to my parents about it: they just wouldn't understand.

I found it hard to admit to myself that I had a mental health issue. The very idea left me frightened and ashamed. What did this mean for my future? Would I have to drop out of university? Who could I ask to help me?

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My sister had just graduated as a nurse. She had moved away from home but she left a psychiatry text on our book shelf. I pored over it until I found passages that seemed to describe my symptoms. And there I was: neurosis with associated anxiety and depression. So now I knew (or thought I did) the nature of my problem. But what about a solution?

I struggled on for many weeks, miserable and lonely. Until one day when I was standing on the second floor of Simard [Hall], watching students in the lobby between two classes. I remember being overwhelmed by anxiety and feelings of isolation. I vowed to myself that I would do something, anything, to find a way forward.

That night I went through the Yellow Pages of the Ottawa phone book (a sort of ancestor of Google). I looked up "Psychiatrists" and found a list of ten or twelve names. It took me days to work up the courage to call, but I finally did: one at a time, telling their receptionists about my distress and asking for an appointment. They were all too busy, until one of the names I called answered the phone himself. He listened to my urgent plea for help and gave me an appointment for the very next day. I still remember the enormous relief I felt, just knowing that I was finally going to talk to someone about my secret.

I saw the psychiatrist every week for several months. I told no one, and especially not my parents. His professional services were not covered by medicare, and he usually charged $90 per session. There was simply no way that I could pay. In an act of kindness that I still find remarkable, he agreed not to charge me at all. (Many years later, when I was practising law in Toronto, I sent him a cheque with a note of thanks, expressing the hope that my contribution would enable him to see someone else in distress who could not pay.)

Over the next year, and with his kind help and advice, I regained my sense of perspective. I began to emerge from my self-imposed isolation. I engaged again, slowly and tentatively, with friends and campus activities. I came to understand myself better, with insights that helped me grow and develop as a person.

It was not easy for me to get help. And I was very lucky to find such a generous person. He truly changed, and perhaps saved, my very life.

Many years have passed. The world, and uOttawa, have evolved. But some things remain the same. Anxiety, depression and other emotional issues are still very common on campus. And I know from my own experience how confusing and upsetting these disorders can be. How they can make us feel isolated and alone.

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But you are not alone.

One of the good things that has happened over time is that confidential counselling services are now so much more available on campus. Anyone who feels the need can arrange to see a counsellor quickly to be assessed.

Don't try to solve these issues on your own. No need to find treatment by yourself. Take advantage of the excellent help that is available.

Call our counselling services and ask for their assistance. Our counsellors are specially trained, sensitive to your concerns about privacy, and have a great deal of experience. They will assure confidential treatment and follow-up.

Above all, don't suffer by yourself. When I finally got help, it made all the difference. Over time, my symptoms diminished and then disappeared, never to return.

So please, do seek help.

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It is only a call away.

Allan Rock is the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Ottawa. He served as Canada's Minister of Health from 1997 to 2002.

Editor's note: This opinion piece also appears online in the University of Ottawa's student newspapers the Fulcrum and La Rotonde..

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