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One student's story: Be open, be vulnerable and listen

A mental health testimonial about the journey back to well-being


Clare Hickey: "Every time I face a new challenge, or feel stuck in a downward slump, I have found I am able to rise up again and continue on my journey through the resources and the allies."

By Clare Hickie, Faculty of Arts
January 25, 2017

My journey with mental illness has been a long one that has spanned most of my time at the University of Calgary. Starting out as an enthusiastic first-year, I never anticipated the many challenges I would face with my mental health during my time as a student, nor the many incredible people and supports that I would find.

When I first began my studies, I felt the anxiety and fears that almost all first-years face; that I wouldn’t be smart enough, that I wouldn’t make any friends, that I wouldn’t find my “fit.” Despite these, however, I found a supportive and engaging campus community that welcomed me with open arms and challenged me to grow academically and personally. I blazed through my first year of university, and had great grades, made awesome friends, and volunteered in Costa Rica. Everything seemed to be going according to the plan I had for myself.

Enthusiasm for life slowly slipped away

As first year turned into second year, however, I started becoming more and more tired and anxious, with my energy waning and my enthusiasm slowly burning out. Even though I did everything I could to keep up the appearance of the smart, hard-working person I wanted to be, I felt like I was becoming a ghost of my former self. There were days where I would zone out in class, sitting through the entire lecture but not absorbing a single word, or lie in bed all day unable to make my way to work or school. I felt my love and enthusiasm for life slowly slip away, leaving behind a person that I hardly knew. I knew something was wrong, and that I needed help, but I was stuck in a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, and kept telling myself that it would pass and that I could get through it on my own if I was strong enough.

The thing about a mental illness is that it doesn’t come out like a flood; it builds up slowly like a dam, until it’s so full it’s set to burst, that one drop of water can cause it to burst. For an entire semester I felt this pain, loneliness, and exhaustion build up, but could not find a name for what I was feeling. Stigma and lack of knowledge about mental illness can act as blinders, and prevent you from seeing what the real problem is, and externalize it to other factors. I told myself that it was just the stress of classes and my extracurricular involvement, and that I could push through it.

Turning a corner: An important conversation with a friend

Eventually, however, I faced a breaking point. One day I met a friend for coffee, and we started chatting about how we were doing. I prepared to put up my usual mask of denial, preparing myself to lie and tell her that I was doing well. That changed, however, when she began to open up on some of the things she was feeling vulnerable about: the loneliness she was experiencing and the doubts she felt. Seeing someone open up and be vulnerable opened the flood gates, and I shared how I was really doing. I was finally able to verbalize everything I had been experiencing: the loneliness, the isolation, the tiredness, the disinterest in the things I had once loved. Telling someone about my deepest fears and vulnerabilities was utterly terrifying, but it was a moment that ultimately acted as the milestone for the beginning of my recovery and healing.

The story that I would like to tell is that after that point I was cured, my depression disappeared, and I never experienced a depressive episode again. However, my story, and the story of many others, does not follow that narrative. After talking with my friend, I started counselling through the Wellness Centre and seeing my family doctor. After a long period of time, I eventually started getting regular therapy and taking anti-depressants. I had been reluctant to start medication, but I experienced some incredible changes when I eventually found the right medication. And even though medication does not “fix” my depression and I still struggle with it, it has made an incredible difference in my life.

Connections and resilence make the difference

Depression impacts all parts of your life, whether you’re in a depressive episode or not. I have faced many ups and downs, and have had a lot of low points since that time, where I have felt lost and alone. What makes a difference, however, are the connections I have made and the resilience I have built. I have opened up conversations with my friends and my family about what it is like to have depression, how I experience it, and how they can support me. I have learned coping skills and methods to fight back against the self-doubt that can drag me down. Every time I face a new challenge, or feel stuck in a downward slump, I have found I am able to rise up again and continue on my journey through the resources and the allies.

I am grateful to have the support in my life to help me navigate depression. While I have had success in managing it, it is important to remember that not everyone is lucky enough to have the supports they need to successfully find their way through their own mental health journey. I have been fortunate to have access to medical care, therapy and counselling, medical treatment, supportive friends and family, and a school environment that is dedicated to raising awareness about mental health. For many people who struggle with depression or other mental illnesses, these resources are not there, or they feel ashamed and alone when reaching out for help. That is why it’s so vital that we continue to open up conversations with our friends and loved ones about mental health.

One of the greatest impacts on my mental health came from a friend being willing to open up, be vulnerable, and listen. We all need to change our perspective and encourage each other to be open, be vulnerable and listen.

Clare Hickie is a fifth-year student in the Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Development Studies program at the University of Calgary. 

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. If you think you need help, please visit resources here. If you think someone you know needs help, find more information here.