It seemed like just another Wednesday, only the third day of the fall semester, and Alex Miller was navigating his return to college: finding classes and meeting professors and students. It all seemed fine, but by day’s end, it would prove to be one of the most haunting days of his life.
After class, he returned home to the sound of screaming. He found his mother distraught, crying and barely able to speak. Amid her garbled distress, he pieced out one phrase:
Her boyfriend had died.
Miller took the phone and addressed the officer on the other line. The officer said his mother’s boyfriend had been found in his car. There was evidence that indicated he had taken his own life.
The following day, Miller, a neuroscience junior, found out he had been offered a position with a 24/7 crisis hotline he had applied for.
“I was overcome with emotion,” he said. “If I can’t see somebody right here who is suffering, who committed suicide, how can I take this job and help someone else?”
Despite Miller’s internal conflict — justifying a position where he would eventually be helping callers understand their mental health when he felt he couldn’t recognize illness in those close to him — he believed taking a job with an organization that addressed the issue was the right choice.
“It would help me understand what could happen if (the hotline) wasn’t around,” he said. “What CONTACT does is help prevent that from happening.”
CONTACT is a nonprofit crisis line that offers confidential support via phone for people dealing with anything from relationship issues to suicidal ideation, or suicidal thoughts.
Brandon Willis, CONTACT’s crisis line program director, said the perception of mental health and mental illness is beginning to lean toward understanding and addressing those issues while removing their taboo nature.
“Some people can be very depressed and still go through their day smiling and talking to people, but they’re still depressed,” Willis said. “Right now, we’re in a place where people are recognizing it more. We’re talking about it more, and people are learning about how to respond to it.”
Still, mental-health issues continue to be prevalent on college campuses, said Kandi Owens, a postdoctoral psychology fellow with the Student Counseling Center.
She sees a significant amount of depression, anxiety, distress and general-stress cases, and with a growing population of veterans, the pervasiveness of illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder is also increasing.
She said the biggest reason people don’t seek help is because of the stigma associated with it.
“When you get into thinking about other cultures that are represented on our very diverse campus, there are a lot of cultural messages around keeping things within the family or keeping secrets, which does include mental-health issues and emotional-health issues,” Owens said.
UTDPD is often called in to address reports related to the mental health of students.
Chief of Police Larry Zacharias said there have been eight student hospitalizations related to mental health this semester; there were two at this time last year.
“This is my fifth year here, and every year we see more and more students who have mental-health issues, whether it’s anxiety, depression, long-term or short-term,” Zacharias said.
Police officers are required by law to participate in crisis-intervention training, which involves recognizing mental illnesses like paranoid schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder.
One of Zacharias’ main focuses is ensuring that UTDPD is trained to recognize and proactively approach students with a mental illness, he said.
Both Owens and Zacharias partially attribute the rise of mental-illness cases on campus to enrollment growth, but even so, UTDPD addresses reports of students in some form of distress every week.
Changes in a person’s usual behavior, becoming more isolated, missing classes and self-medicating with alcohol or other substances are all telltale signs of a mental health issue, Owens said.
Friends and family of an individual with a mental illness should take everything he or she says seriously and assess whether the person has a plan and the means to commit suicide.
Offering solutions or using personal experiences as a way to approach the issue is not advised, Willis said.
“When you listen to someone, inevitably, you’ll hear the strength they have in themselves,” Willis said. “I can tell you what I’ve been through, what I’ve gone through, but it won’t resonate with you because you and I don’t live the same life. Hearing what they’re saying is the most important.”
Explicit suicidal-ideation calls comprise about 6 percent of CONTACT’s total calls. Situations where suicide is imminent make up an even smaller portion of those calls.
However, if the program could conduct a suicide-risk assessment on all its callers, most of them would be at some risk for suicide, Willis said.
He said he believes proactive discussion is an important step.
Awareness programs and trainings on suicide and mental health in schools help young adults become aware of the signs and better equipped to approach mental illness, he said.
A common misconception regarding discussion about suicide is that mentioning it acts as a trigger for someone experiencing suicidal thoughts, Willis said.
“That’s very untrue,” he said. “Letting people know that it’s more common than you think and being in a place where people can get information about mental illness is always helpful from any kind of media source.”
CONTACT uses a model of crisis intervention based on American psychologist Carl Rogers’ theory, which stresses a humanistic approach to psychotherapy.
“The goal is to make sure the person is heard and that we’re listening to them,” Willis said. “For some people, the power of conversation with someone else is all they need while they’re in a crisis.”
CONTACT has cases of college-aged people with suicidal ideation, he said, but the majority of calls CONTACT receives concern troubled relationships, whether they are platonic or intimate. The hotline also receives a significant amount of calls dealing with the Internet and social media.
Ultimately, helping people seek treatment is the end goal for CONTACT.
“It’s a good start — talking about (mental illness),” Willis said. “Like with anything, we can talk all day about it, but we have to do something about it to make any kind of change. I think that getting people into some kind of place where they can seek help is the bigger goal.”
Miller has been working at CONTACT for more than a month and a half, and he wants to get the training necessary to pick up calls.
Volunteers go through 42 hours of specialized training: 30 hours in class and 12 hours in the field with a mentor. While he doesn’t have the training, Miller has been on the sidelines of four suicidal-ideation calls since he started working at CONTACT.
“Seeing the pain that happens after a crisis or a suicide is really hard,” Miller said. “The suffering that happens is terrible. You don’t realize it’s not just that person who is affected; it’s their family and friends. It’s like a wave of pain.”
He said crisis intervention and the work CONTACT does is something he’d like to explore after college, especially considering his own personal experience living with depression.
“Understanding it for myself and seeing not only the suffering that I personally had to go through, but also the people around me — my parents, my family and friends,” he said. “I’m trying to help people using (my experience).”
Miller said his symptoms of mental illness became apparent 10 years ago during the shift from high school to college. He attended UT Austin for a year before experiencing a particularly taxing depressive episode, he said.
“A lot of people are leaving home and they have this freedom, but there’s no support,” he said. “You’re kind of out there without the support you’re used to. With school and social pressures, it can get to be really tough, especially during that time.”
Worried, a friend of Miller’s contacted his parents after noticing he wasn’t answering any calls. Miller’s parents drove to Austin to take him home.
Soon after, a psychologist diagnosed him with depression.
It took Miller time to process and understand his mental illness. He said that even after his diagnosis, he wasn’t ready to accept it.
“Once you understand the illness that you have, you have to understand your limits as a person,” Miller said. “When I was deep in depression, I would stay up all night and sleep during the day. I would just isolate myself. You have to understand that just makes the circle even smaller and that it makes you spiral even faster. If you don’t understand that, it just gets worse.”
Following another semester at UT Austin, Miller found it too difficult, so he returned home and worked. He decided to attend the University of North Texas, but his depression re-emerged.
During spring break, Miller had a strong verbal fight with his roommate and locked himself in his room, refusing to speak to anyone.
It was one of the worst moments of his life, he said, and he considers that period as the point when he was most at risk of suicide.
“That’s definitely the time you need to talk to somebody,” Miller said. “That’s the hardest step. If you can make that step to call somebody, I think you’re good, but when you’re in that mindset — not wanting to live anymore — it’s one of the hardest things.”
Miller decided to seek counseling and medication in an effort to get better. In retrospect, he said he recognizes communication as a key element in staying healthy.
“If you don’t have connections with people, you get lost in your own mind,” Miller said. “There’s a cycle that happens in your mind. A lot of times with my thoughts, I would feel guilty about doing something. Since there was nobody there to tell me I shouldn’t feel guilty, it would get worse. If you don’t have anybody there to support you, you don’t realize that what you’re doing is irrational. You just get stuck.”
There is value in creating and fueling a greater dialogue on mental health, he said, and people don’t talk about it enough.
“I feel like one of the biggest things is trying to get the stigma out of mental health, and that’s part of the reason I’m here talking,” Miller said. “As someone who has suffered through it, maybe it’ll help others feel like they don’t have to be ashamed.”