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One student's journey with depression

On the outside Chyrell Bellamy-Sarr seemed to have it all together. She was one of the first in her family to attend college and believes she may be one of the only African Americans from her high school class to work on a Ph.D. As an undergraduate she took 19 credits per semester, held down two jobs and managed to earn good grades. Her determination to succeed made it difficult for psychiatric professionals to see that her frequent visits to the emergency room during the time she was earning her master's degree were desperate cries for help with depression.
Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services

"I could not concentrate, did not eat, could not sleep and cried constantly," says Bellamy-Sarr, a doctoral student in the Social Work program. "All of this was hidden, for the most part, from my professors. I lived on campus, so my dorm-mate was aware." Bellamy-Sarr says she went to the psychiatric ER at least four times, and in each instance she was sent home.

"They would ask me what I wanted to be in the future, and I would tell them of my goals," she says. "Because I had goals, it was okay for me to go. I wanted people to see that something was wrong, that I was depressed, yet I did not know how to tell people about it."

Bellamy-Sarr is one of several presenters in an upcoming depression conference at the University, March 6-7. The U-M Depression Center and Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies are organizing the first of such conferences, titled "Depression on College Campuses: Best Practices and Innovative Strategies." The event is in the Michigan League.

Bellamy-Sarr and two other students will conduct a workshop at 10:30 a.m. March 6, during which they will tell of their journeys with depression. She wants to help raise awareness about the disease.

"It is my hope that people understand it is difficult for students to talk about being depressed when we are in the midst of a depressive episode," she says. "So we need our loved ones, friends, colleagues, classmates and professors to be vigilant—to make themselves available—to make us feel as if we are not 'crazy.' Depression should become as easy to discuss as diabetes, hypertension and arthritis."

Bellamy-Sarr says students with depression need to seek help before they reach a crisis. "As corny as it sounds, they are not alone," she says. The American College Health Association says that in 2000, 10 percent of college students—12.8 percent of women and 6.2 percent of men—had been diagnosed with depression some time in their lives. A 2002 national survey found that more than 80 percent of the 274 directors of campus counseling centers surveyed said they thought the number of students with severe psychological disorders has risen over the last five years.

The National Institute of Mental Health says approximately 18.8 million American adults, or about 9.5 percent of the nation's population age 18 and older, have a depressive disorder. Depression most often begins in late childhood, in adolescence or in early adulthood.

Bellamy-Sarr knew about her depression in high school, although she initially was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But it wasn't until she became a doctoral student at U-M that she received the help she needed.

"I was taking a class on trauma and approached my professor, Jane Hassinger [adjunct lecturer], with my 'story,'" she says. "She pointed me to a wonderful therapist, Dr. [Elizabeth] Jordan."

Bellamy-Sarr says Social Work Dean Paula Allen-Meares and Associate Dean and Prof. Carol Mowbray also helped her learn to deal with her illness.

"Talk about being in the right place at the right time," Bellamy-Sarr says. "I worked with Carol Mowbray on her program called Supported Education, which assists adults with mental illness as they transition to college."

Mowbray recommended that Bellamy-Sarr develop a "quality circle," a group of people who could help her with her depression. She chose Mowbray, another social work professor and three close friends from her academic program. The group and Bellamy-Sarr met with her therapist to talk about ways quality circle members could provide her with support.

"Asking for help felt weird and was very difficult to do," she says. "But they kept me accountable, gave me support when I needed it and made me not feel guilty or ashamed if I was spiraling down."

Bellamy-Sarr hopes students attending the depression conference will come away with an understanding that there are resources available to them. She also wants those from the community to see that they can be part of a support system for students with depressive illnesses.

For more information or to register for the conference, go to: http://www.rackham.umich.edu/DepressionConf/.

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