De­pres­sion Screen­ing Day

Re­duce your stress—don’t get dressed!

Geist - - Contents - Jill Boettger

Early this win­ter I led a writ­ing work­shop where stu­dents pre­sented sto­ries meant to demon­strate the nar­ra­tive build­ing blocks of con­flict, cri­sis and res­o­lu­tion. One story fea­tured a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween a young woman and a ghost. The class de­bated whether the ghost was in­deed a su­per­nat­u­ral pres­ence, or a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the young woman’s in­ter­nal con­flict. “Is this story about ghosts,” one student asked, “or men­tal ill­ness?” In an­other story a young man took a co­conut to brunch with his par­ents, and in­tro­duced the co­conut as his girl­friend. You can’t have a re­la­tion­ship with a co­conut, his mother said. Don’t be racist, the young man replied. The class de­bated whether the story’s cen­tral con­flict was be­tween the young man and his fam­ily or the young man and him­self. “This may be an­other story about men­tal ill­ness,” a student re­marked.

Five years ago the uni­ver­sity where I teach as­sem­bled a Pres­i­dent’s Task Force on Student Men­tal Health, de­signed to gather in­for­ma­tion about the men­tal health of the cam­pus com­mu­nity and cre­ate sup­port ser­vices for those in need. Ac­tion groups, we­bi­nars, fo­cus groups, pre­sen­ta­tions, com­mu­nity con­sul­ta­tions, sur­veys and train­ing en­sued. Peer Health Ed­u­ca­tors and the Re­duc­ing Stigma Ac­tion Group held a pa­jama day cam­paign (“Re­duce your stress—don’t get dressed!”), and on Na­tional De­pres­sion Screen­ing Day the pres­i­dent of the uni­ver­sity sat cross-legged on a colour­ful pat­terned rug in the main hall­way, pop­ping bub­ble wrap with stu­dents to cre­ate the sound of a crack­ling fire. Ever since the Task Force pre­sented its forty­one “Rec­om­men­da­tions for Men­tal Health” to the cam­pus com­mu­nity, the topic has re­mained highly vis­i­ble. Bul­letin boards once rel­e­gated to ad­ver­tis­ing in­tra­mu­ral sports and up­com­ing cam­pus gigs now re­mind stu­dents how to ac­cess Breath­ing Room: an on­line re­silience tool, and fea­ture tips on get­ting a good night’s sleep.

As the work­shop went on, our dis­cus­sion of each story kept re­turn­ing to the ques­tion of con­flict. Did the child pos­sess a sixth sense, or was she just see­ing things? Did the ninja war­rior flee after slay­ing his mas­ter be­cause he feared ret­ri­bu­tion, or was it guilt that haunted him? Was the man changed by his mother’s ad­vice, or did he sim­ply re­gret the way he spoke to his lover? I lis­tened to my stu­dents de­bate the cause of each char­ac­ter’s strug­gle, and I won­dered if the much talked-about sub­ject of men­tal health on cam­pus had found its way into my fic­tion work­shop—or is the ques­tion of where ex­ter­nal con­flict ends and in­ter­nal con­flict be­gins a le­git­i­mate sto­ry­telling co­nun­drum? Per­haps the bound­ary be­tween our in­te­rior and

ex­te­rior worlds is more per­me­able than we like to think.

Mid­win­ter in Cal­gary is a sea­son of ex­tremes. In Fe­bru­ary, 80 cen­time­tres of snow fell and the tem­per­a­ture dropped to −33°C. The fol­low­ing week a chi­nook ar­rived, and the tem­per­a­ture rose to +16°C. A cur­rent of melted snow streamed down our street, and out­side the kids stripped down to T-shirts. The pres­sure change hurt my head, made it hard to think, while the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of win­ter had al­ready taken a toll. For months I’d strug­gled with low en­ergy, and the col­lec­tive un­rest and de­spair fol­low­ing the Amer­i­can elec­tion had got hold of me and hung on into the dark months. By Fe­bru­ary I was ragged. Sunk.

Hav­ing ex­hausted an ex­ten­sive list of self-care strate­gies, I walked the three blocks to Lukes Drug Mart, a pre­scrip­tion for anti-de­pres­sants folded in my pocket. The phar­macy was at the back, and on my way through the store I passed a dis­play for a 10,000 LUX Full Spec­trum Light. The pam­phlet fea­tured an im­age of a woman with her eyes closed and her arms out­stretched. Her face was serene as she basked in a golden glow. It’s an im­age I’d ex­pect to see in a leaflet for re­li­gious sal­va­tion, but here I’d found it at Lukes Drug Mart. Re­luc­tant to fill the pre­scrip­tion, I de­cided to try the light in­stead.

I took it home, un­fas­tened its jacket of bub­ble wrap and placed it on my desk. It was the size of a small ce­real box. When I plugged it in, there was a brief flicker fol­lowed by a bril­liant, steady bright­ness. The rec­tan­gle of light looked like a door into a bright new world. I sat at this door for thirty min­utes ev­ery day, and after a week I felt as though the cur­tains had been drawn in my brain. I could see again. While I’d been fo­cus­ing on reme­dies for my in­sides—nutri­tion, ex­er­cise, med­i­ta­tion, med­i­ca­tion—it was the light out­side that re­stored me.

Back in my fic­tion work­shop the last story we dis­cussed de­scribed a trop­i­cal storm—a straight­for­ward ex­am­ple of Per­son ver­sus En­vi­ron­ment. In the story, the air grew thick and hu­mid. The main char­ac­ter nailed ply­wood against the win­dows be­fore the wind could throw the pa­tio fur­ni­ture into the glass. When the storm passed, she emerged from her house to find ev­ery­one as­sess­ing their own dam­age. Much was said about the story’s ex­cel­lent use of im­agery: “I could feel the wind and the chaos,” one student said. “I felt like I was in this storm too,” an­other re­marked. I turned to the student who wrote the story and asked if she had any ques­tions for us. “Yes,” she said. “The storm is a metaphor. How can I make it clear this story is ac­tu­ally about men­tal ill­ness?” At this point I re­al­ized we may not have found our res­o­lu­tion. Jill Boettger writes sto­ries and po­ems in Cal­gary, where she lives with her hus­band and two kids. She teaches writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture at Mount Royal Uni­ver­sity. Read more of her writ­ing at

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