Kazel: Peer discussion groups can show Northwestern students they’re not alone

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Robert Kazel, Guest Columnist

There’s a scene in the 2000 movie “Almost Famous.” Adolescent music nerd William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is talking by phone with his new friend and mentor, rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman). After young Miller manages to open up about his myriad frustrations and feelings of confusion, Bangs responds with casual reassurance.

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world,” he tells his protege, “is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”

I love that. But can there be any doubt that a place nobody wants to be considered “uncool” is college? More to the point: If you found your grasp on life slipping, your ability to function diminishing, your sense of optimism weirdly being eclipsed, whom could you tell? As the everyday world of Northwestern swirled around you, possibly oblivious to your pain, would you tell anyone?

When I arrived at Northwestern in the fall of 1981, appearing confident and competitive was imperative. I’d been the academic star of my high school. And indeed, the first several weeks of my first quarter were outstanding. I got A’s on every quiz and paper. Going to classes was a joy.

That is, until my world was thrown into chaos like an anthill kicked by an unseen boot. Around November, I started to feel I was about to fail every course. There was no logical reason. I couldn’t see how I could make it to finals, and I thought of dropping out. I felt terrible panic, and as the anxiety mushroomed, I gradually stopped attending classes. The staff at Searle was perplexed. On New Year’s Eve, I was admitted to Evanston Hospital.

Eventually, I got a diagnosis of bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness, back then). Months passed, but I ultimately returned to Medill and, buttressed by medication and off-campus counseling, did very well the next four years. Yet, I had the sensation of acting in a play, where again I was cast as Successful Northwestern Student. I dared not come out of character. I couldn’t be honest, even with friends. I wanted to, if only to be sure I’d have support in any future crisis. But I felt unsure who might retreat or recoil from my truth.

The issue of mental health at NU is again being fiercely debated, recharged this week by the sad news of the suicide of McCormick sophomore Dmitri Teplov. This conversation — on how counseling, suicide prevention and student and faculty education should be beefed up and revamped — must continue.

Unfortunately, a potentially powerful tool — peer-to-peer support groups — hasn’t yet achieved solid standing at NU. These groups aren’t therapy, but gatherings of students who regularly meet, converse about how they’re feeling, help educate one another, and try to provide encouragement. This would take place in a setting of equality, mutual respect and total confidentiality. No clinician would be present. Meeting facilitators would be students, well-trained to moderate discussions while striving themselves to come to grips with psychological upheaval.

Students around the U.S. are forming these groups. The National Alliance on Mental Illness expects more than 100 of its new, independent, student-organized peer discussion groups, dubbed “NAMI on Campus” clubs, to be in operation at colleges this year.

Another peer-centered organization, the Chicago-based Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, is eager to help students create campus chapters. DBSA groups at colleges may make a lot of sense: One study found the number of children’s and teens’ doctor visits for bipolar disorder increased some 40-fold between 1994 and 2003.

Groups can’t replace counselors or doctors. But professional care augmented by peer-driven support is a great combination.

In isolation, NU students with serious mental illness may find it a challenge to get back to normal scholastically and socially. I did. But working together in groups, they could travel a much smoother road. Peer support has a proven record of helping to keep participants out of the hospital and feeling happier, better understood, and less alone. Counseling and Psychological Services, the University administration and the brave student leaders of NU Active Minds should do whatever is necessary to help establish a peer discussion group on campus soon.

Robert Kazel (Medill ‘86) is a former Daily staffer, a freelance writer and president of DBSA GLBT Chicago, a chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

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