McLean Hospital – 115 Mill Street, Belmont, MA 02478
Privacy is important to us, so we have changed the names to protect patient identities.
At the age of 16, Sarah was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She was a senior in high school and had been planning to attend college, but having a mental illness interfered with her ability to attend school and to engage in classwork. Sarah was hospitalized and finished her high school education while living in an adolescent residential treatment center. When she was 18, Sarah and her family moved to Boston, where she began treatment at McLean Hospital. She was seen by many expert practitioners, and her diagnosis was changed to schizoaffective disorder (a cross between bipolar disorder and schizophrenia).
Sarah wanted to attend college with her friends, but did not because she continued to suffer from hallucinations, delusions, and depression. Sarah had multiple psychiatric hospitalizations and medication trials; as time passed, she felt more and more depressed that she was never going to feel like her old self. Eventually, when Sarah was 20, her symptoms subsided enough that she and her treatment team felt she was ready to attend college, as long as she stayed in Boston near her family for support. At the first university, Sarah did not do well; she was still somewhat symptomatic and unable to concentrate in class. Socially, it was hard to fit in because she was so anxious. After two years of struggling, Sarah transferred to a small women’s college. Despite her hesitation because of the stigma associated with mental illness, Sarah registered with the college’s Disability Resource Center, which worked with her to allow for academic accommodations while maintaining her privacy.
Finally, the medications Sarah was taking were making an impact. She was able to excel in her classes, and she was accepted into the nursing program. School was not easy, but with the appropriate support from her therapist, family, and friends, Sarah was able to regain the life she thought she would never see again. Sarah decided to live at home with her parents and commute to school so she would not have to deal with the stress of living in a dorm. Now, at the age of 28, Sarah has graduated with a nursing degree, works as a part-time RN, and is attending graduate school to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner.
Karen is a shy, compassionate young woman who takes care of other people before herself. She grew up in a small town in Ohio with lots of friends. In high school, Karen received As and Bs, and was on the varsity lacrosse team as well as the cheerleading squad. Karen loved to write and was accepted at a university in North Carolina. She was thrilled to go to college but found herself missing home tremendously. She had never had mental health issues, but she began to feel depressed and isolated.
As the first few weeks of her freshman year of college rolled by, Karen lost all interest and withdrew; she started drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. When it got to the point that Karen felt suicidal, she knew she needed help but was embarrassed to go to the college’s mental health center. One day, Karen’s roommate walked in and saw Karen cutting herself. The roommate helped Karen call her parents and they immediately came to North Carolina to help. When Karen’s parents saw her, they noticed that she had lost a lot of weight and was clearly depressed. They took her home to Ohio, where she began seeing a psychiatrist. All Karen could think about was missing school, but the psychiatrist was worried about her safety so he admitted her to a psychiatric hospital.
Karen started taking antidepressant medication and talking about her issues with a therapist. After a week in the hospital, Karen spent a few weeks in a partial hospitalization program. Although Karen never went back to her original college in North Carolina, she was able to major in writing at a local state college and is now a high school English teacher.
Rob says the hardest lesson he has had to learn is that life is not a race, and that it is OK for everyone to take a different path. Rob has suffered from depression since he was 12, and school has always been a struggle. On some level, he was interested in learning, but he lacked motivation and eventually stopped going to school in the tenth grade. With no school, no job, and only a few friends, Rob fell deeper into depression. He felt like he had “screwed things up” and was never going to have a meaningful life.
When he was 17, Rob was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in New York City because he was suicidal. After he left the hospital, his depression persisted. Rob was able to earn his GED and tried to go to college several times, but he repeatedly failed because the stress made his depression and anxiety worse.
At the age of 21, Rob decided to try electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to improve his long-term depression. The ECT helped; within a few months, he moved into his own apartment and was working with his dad’s manufacturing company. Rob still struggles to feel good about himself when he compares his life with those of other young adults, but he continues to work part time and recently completed his first semester of college.