In the driven environment of U of T, it is too easy to lose sight of just how much university students deal with. From utilizing therapy to finding their passions, five students share their stories of battling adversity and moving forward when doing so feels impossible.
Reading Time: 15 minutes
By Rachel Chen
“I don’t think I should do this.”
“I don’t know if I should do this, but I’m stuck now.”
“Now I can’t do anything.”
“Maybe I’m just nervous.”
In Ryerson University’s journalism program, Nadia Ozzorluoglu used to wake up crying. Journalism was her purpose, her parents had helped pay for school, and everyone was counting on her. Once in the program, however, the idea of interviewwing strangers, writing about it, handing her work in, and doing it again and again terrified her.
“Now that I was facing the reality of what I should not be doing, I just couldn’t accept that,” said Ozzorluoglu. “The fact that my purpose was completely obliterated in the matter of a day really kind of freaked me out.”
Today, Ozzorluoglu is in her third year at UTM, double-majoring in English and Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies. After taking a gap year to relax and re-explore her interests, she has found her niche in theatre.
Whether it is stress, mental illness, or any other number of extraneous situations, what keeps people going when living feels impossible? When dealing with today is difficult, envisioning the future — from getting up tomorrow morning to post-graduate planning — becomes even harder.
The concept of resiliency, or the ability to bounce back when life gets tough, comes to mind. As Ozzorluoglu said, a “sink or swim” mentality takes over. Stanley Zhou, a U of T PhD student studying cancer biology, called it ‘bend or break.’
But it is not always easy to swim or to bend.
Recognizing when something is wrong
Yin Kot is a fourth-year student at UTSG, about to finish a double major in Criminology and Ethics, Society, and Law and a minor in Philosophy. A bit of a perfectionist, Kot realized she had anxiety in her third year.
“It ended up being where I was just lying in bed and like, petrified of starting to the point where I would miss something,” said Kot. “I’d get out of bed but it’s like in a very begrudging way and beating myself up over this thing that I didn’t accomplish that I said I would. I sort of would carry that energy with me the whole day.”
Ozzorluoglu knew she had social anxiety and depression before she went to Ryerson, but it had been manageable. As she became worse and worse, she knew she needed help but didn’t know how to ask.
“I was crying all day, I was constantly wrapped in a blanket… I was constantly drinking tea, I was constantly around my mom and I was holding her hand… I reverted into childhood,” she said. “I couldn’t function and I was constantly having panic attacks. I knew I needed help because that was not normal and that’s not how I used to be.”
“I thought I couldn’t take the year off and think about what I wanted to do and talk and get help,” said Ozzorluoglu. “I thought this was the end. I’m going to get stuck doing something I hate for four years, and I don’t know how I’m going to get through it.”
Currently in her final year at U of T studying International Relations and Economics, Sarah Jevnikar was “unnaturally anxious,” according to her sister. Like Kot, she had difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. She sought help when depression came later.
“If I started with thinking about the work I had to do, even if I enjoyed it, I’d get too overwhelmed and wouldn’t be able to move from the panic and depression,” said Jevnikar.
Jevnikar has blindness, and she pointed out that people rarely discuss the intersection of mental illness and disability.
“My first psychiatrist attributed every problem I had to my blindness. This wasn’t accurate for me — it comes with a package of issues: social isolation, misunderstandings, inaccessible course materials that take longer to produce and use, extra pressure to excel despite all of these things… But I know it in itself wasn’t the cause of my anxiety and depression,” said Jevnikar.
Emerson Daniele, a fourth-year student specializing in Neuroscience and minoring in Psychology, was diagnosed with social anxiety and depression in grade 11. Psychology is important, he said, because mental illness often makes thinking about the future difficult.
“One of the byproducts of anxiety is that you ruminate on things that are currently happening, or have happened in the past, but… the issue about social anxiety is that you also worry about things in the future, but they’re not realistic things,” explained Daniele. “I’m worried about things that would probably never happen, but I’m not actually thinking about my future in a productive way.”
He addressed the ability to think of a future as “dealing with whatever mess is the now.”
“When I was diagnosed, or even in the period of time leading up to my diagnosis, I couldn’t think about a future because my mental state was taking over,” said Daniele. “I couldn’t move past that.”
PSYCHOLOGY AND COGNITIVE BEHAVIOURAL THEORY
Daniele brought up a concept of cognitive behavioural theory called ‘schemas,’ generalized knowledge structures that shape a person’s expectations for and perceptions of their environment. The theory goes that when a person has an experience, they filter it through schemas.
When a schema is “dysfunctional,” people can get stuck in a negative mindset because they are more likely to accept whatever is “schema consistent.” This means that people are more likely to ignore something if it is inconsistent with the schema, regardless of if it is realistic.
“My example would be my depression, right? And social anxiety,” said Daniele. He would think, “People don’t like me. They are saying yes to hanging out with me because they feel bad. So anytime someone would say yes to me, I would be like, ‘Okay, they feel bad.’ But if they said no, I’m like, ‘Okay, they don’t like me.’”
In cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which Daniele both attended and later learned about in his university courses, the main concept is that thoughts, emotions, and behaviour all affect each other in a sort of circle.
“The thought is that… if you intervene at the thought level or the behavioural level, you can change the emotional response and the cycle would continue on more positively,” said Daniele.
Daniele did not consider himself a naturally resilient person, but he found CBT fascinating because it gave him the skills to basically be his own therapist.
“Being able and learning the techniques to step back and kind of evaluate when you’re having one of those dysfunctional thoughts was the sources of my resiliency going forward,” said Daniele. “At cognitive behavioural therapy, they really do teach you techniques on how to evaluate your thought processes and challenge them as they are happening. Which is really difficult to do in the moment because a lot of the times your thoughts are so automatic, they’re just gut reactions, right?”
Of course, while the ideas behind CBT make a lot of sense, Daniele made sure to point out that it does not work for everyone. For Jevnikar, those tools help, but she said that CBT is not a “catch-all.”
“Everyone should try to take care of their mental health just as they would maintain their physical health, whether they have a mental illness or not.”
“I still struggle with being open with those around me. I’d like to think I’m a bit better at coping with things because I recognize them — I know if I start to get a certain feeling that I need to get help before it worsens. I think the pre-therapy Sarah wouldn’t have known or thought to do that,” said Jevnikar.
Catching when that feeling happens is a major key to maintaining mental health, which Daniele emphasized is different from mental illness. Everyone should try to take care of their mental health just as they would maintain their physical health, whether they have a mental illness or not.
FINDING AND CREATING SUPPORT NETWORKS
While therapy is often useful, its resources and the discussions surrounding it are not always accessible to all.
Kot, for instance, was hesitant to reach out for help herself, despite working on an initiative called Healthy Minds U of T and telling her students from mentorship program First in the Family to use all the resources available to them.
“I grew up in Hong Kong,” said Kot. “This isn’t a thing that you talk about. Even in my family especially, it was very much a ‘chin up buttercup, keep going.’ I remember even when I was a kid, if I was upset about something and crying about something, it was very much a ‘why are you displaying your emotions so much?… don’t do that.’”
With her parents in Hong Kong, Kot didn’t want to worry them. She researched words to translate her anxiety into Chinese, but the only ones she could find ended in 깹 which means ‘sickness’ or ‘disease.’ The word felt too permanent and too strong for her to breach the topic.
“You have to put up a brave face,” said Kot. “I remember they would Skype in every week, and even when it was at the worst of it I just would be like, ‘Yeah, everything is great’… It was like they sacrificed so much to send me here, so how could I tell them that I am unhappy? My mum never went to university, so I am literally living her dream, I feel. How could I tell them that I am not loving it here?”
Zhou, who has studied at U of T since beginning his undergrad in 2011, understands Kot’s situation all too well. Born in Guangzhou, he was his father’s sixth child under China’s one-child policy. For about five to six years, he lived without an official identity until his parents borrowed enough money from distant family members to be able to give him one.
Eventually, Zhou and his parents moved to Canada for his education, which his father had to sacrifice retirement to do. These experiences and hardships helped him truly appreciate the value of education and grow to enjoy learning for the sake of learning.
“Because we were not that well-off… we literally were trying to get money to put on the table — and my dad did the same thing in his younger days; during the Cultural Revolution, he would have to beg for food,” said Zhou. “So when I grew up with the childhood of having to go through such difficulties that are basic human necessities, why would I be stressed out — which I still am — why would I go crazy over a grade?”
Although Zhou was passionate about school, he and a friend realized that incoming students could use a little help and began mentoring students through the ‘Accepted U of T’ Facebook pages.
“What I’m very proud of here is that when I started mentoring the kids that I mentored — they’re not kids really, they’re 22, 23 — are now mentoring others, and the people they mentored are now mentoring other people,” said Zhou. “That also has to do with mental health as well — if you know there is someone there to help you, you feel much better about your chances to do stuff.”
One year, he took this a step further and wrote a post offering an ear to anyone who needed one, telling them to message him their stories. “I got issues that are way more unfortunate than what I went through as a child and I was inspired by those stories,” said Zhou. “I realized everybody has their own chapter and you just have to sort of push on through… Try to be good to people, try to be nice to people.”
People cannot do life alone, Zhou pointed out. He pressed on the importance of social interactions, encouraging students to indulge in simple activities like having a coffee with someone or going outside. Without interaction, he said, “you get more depressed than what you started with.”
Kot and Jevnikar echoed the necessity of networks and community. Kot thinks that much of the ability to cope comes from unpacking experiences and talking to someone: “I just feel like a lot of people helped me get to where I am,” said Kot. “Like, this was a group project, not an individual thing. So I think resilience comes from networks… I don’t think anyone can really be resilient on their own because no one can be ‘on’ all the time.”
For times when finding community is difficult, however, Jevnikar brought up the many other resources available to students, such as Counseline, an in-person and online student counselling service.
“Having people to visit me or talk to me socially [is] critical, and that was tough when I was by myself so much while at U of T,” said Jevnikar. “In my lowest moments I made use of Good2Talk, a phone service for all Ontario post-secondary students, which was essential in keeping me together during the loneliest times.”
Asking for help
Perhaps most importantly, all the students implied that no one is ever as stuck as they might feel. Even with schoolwork, there is more help and flexibility than students realize.
“[Your] registrar isn’t an automaton who will throw [you] out of university if [you’re] not doing well. I don’t mean to be flippant, but I was terrified of talking to my registrar, so [I] was always playing catch-up during a crisis and almost always made a fool of myself by being over-emotional — which they completely understood for the most part,” said Jevnikar.
“You are not the first student to have these problems, which isn’t to diminish your own experience as just ‘run-of-the-mill,’ but I say that to indicate that there are many people who have heard similar stories and who want to and can help. U of T can appear isolating, but I promise it doesn’t have to,” she added.
Similarly, following yet another all-nighter near the end of her third year, Kot realized that she could not function like that anymore, even though her essay was due the next day. The realization, she said, “terrified” her.
Kot reached out to the Dean’s office at her college, which referred her to her registrar and the Health and Wellness Centre. Today, her approach has changed such that she does not have to reach a breaking point before taking action.
“I’ve been sitting down and having frank and open conversations with my professors, with my bosses, with everyone… who wants to talk about [my anxiety],” said Kot. “That really helps me because I think I was sort of terrified of failing… They’re like, ‘You know what? That happens to me too.’ And they totally get it and they talk me through it. It sort of helps me understand that even if I do mess up, it’s okay. It’s not like it is undoable or anything.”
Whether it is stress, mental illness, or any other number of extraneous situations, what keeps people going when living feels impossible?
Ozzorluoglu was fortunate her parents took mental illness seriously and assisted her in finding the help she needed. “I used to go to a therapist, and my mom forced me to go on antidepressants and anxiety medication, which is like the best thing my mom has ever done,” said Ozzorluoglu. “I went to therapy twice a week, started off twice a week, then once a week, eventually once a month. Now I don’t really see her anymore.” At times, Ozzorluoglu admits that she reverts to her old ways of coping, but even without regular therapy now, what she gained from it still helped greatly.
“I’m better at knowing myself,” said Ozzorluoglu. “I know my creative outlets. I have resources now.”
Finding a passion
When life becomes more manageable, or when we escape a negative mindset, it is interesting how much our perspectives can change. Daniele, for example, still cares about how and what other people think but approaches it from a completely different outlook.
“That used to be such a negative thing for me because I was worried about their negative feelings towards me, but I guess a big moment for me was realizing I could control those negative feelings towards me if they had them or if not,” said Daniele. “But I was worried about how they were feeling about themselves because I was just thinking about how crap I felt. That still gets me up in the morning — thinking that I can study psychiatric disorder.
“It’s funny because the thing that used to like, make me dread waking up in the morning was why I started to wake up in the morning, which I find is kind of oddly profound.”
Zhou pointed out that in university, undergraduates are caught up in the assignment-midterm-exam cycle, which prevents them from deciding whether they actually love what they do. His advice is to take time off and think.
“What I found was that a lot of my friends who did not get a job or whatever after fourth year and took an extra year, or took fewer courses, and they finally had that time to think about what they want — that year, they found out that what they wanted was in contrast with what they thought they wanted in undergrad. Now they are much happier for it,” said Zhou.
For Ozzorluoglu, Zhou’s advice could not be truer. Realizing she was not trapped into one plan for the future changed her direction entirely. However, she added that there is no rush to accomplish anything, or even to heal.
“I understand how some people are just too scared to do anything, which is totally fine,” said Ozzorluoglu. “Take as much time as you need to recover before diving into something if that is what you need. However, if that thing that you need is part of your recovery, then find the aspect of it that suits you the most and try to flourish from that.”
Passion, gratitude, and perseverance — these are key, said Zhou.
“The world is a tough place. It’s not going to stop being tough. It only gets harder. Your responsibility as a student is to enjoy what you learn, try to do well at what you do, and try to grow an interest and passion in something you do.”
Zhou added that mental illness can hinder people from moving forward. In those cases, he asks people to seek help sooner rather than later.
“But in terms of just feeling lazy or uninspired, you cannot expect people to motivate you every day,” said Zhou. “You have to find that inner drive, that inner inspiration to say, ‘This is what I want to achieve today. Even if it is a bad day, this is what I want to achieve tomorrow.’ And so on and so on. Find the reason that you want to do that.”
TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF
Regardless of how each of these students pulled themselves out of tough situations, Zhou tells the unfortunate truth: life can always get harder. However, there are ways to maintain our mental health so that when the inevitable future comes, we are more equipped to handle the unpredictable.
Ozzorluoglu’s therapist recommended she do things like taking a photo or writing a song. “[Those are] things that you don’t really want to do when you’re depressed, and you don’t think about it because you don’t want to do anything,” said Ozzorluoglu. “It sounds so obvious — I want to say when you’re neurotypical — to say ‘Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?’ But when you are in that situation, you don’t want to think about anything, you don’t want to do anything.”
Similarly, Daniele noticed that he was withdrawing from people he cared about when he felt depressed, he urged keeping a good support network in those situations.
“It sounds a bit over-said, but it is important to take time for yourself and take stock of your mental health,” said Daniele. “If you don’t take the time to take stock of your own mental health, that’s when things start to go downhill and that could take you to the mental illness kind of area.”
Kot now makes sure to take the time to jot down notes so she can look back and evaluate her day for connections that otherwise would not have occurred to her.
“There are connections that you can’t really draw when you’re in the moment, but now at the end of the day I take a moment, like, ‘How did I feel today? What did I do today? How did I do last week?’” said Kot. “In hindsight, I’ve connected like, ‘Okay. When I drink coffee, I feel ridiculously anxious for the rest of the day. I love my coffee, but this is not a thing that I can keep doing.’”
The students made sure to emphasize that their experiences will not necessarily apply to everyone else. Some of them brought up their privileged stances in society, while others recognized they might just be more inherently resilient.
“It’s really tough because everyone is different,” said Ozzorluoglu. “You don’t want to influence someone if it is going to harm them but help you. It’s kind of touchy… My way of healing is different than yours.”
“Listen to your body,” she said. “How does your body feel? Just try to do whatever your body wants you to do. Make your body become your friend again and figure out what your body wants.”
The imperative for resiliency, for moving forward through the very worst, seems not to be the ability to merely keep trudging onward through difficulty, but the ability to take a step back, understand ourselves, change our negative schemas, and ask for help when we need it.
As Jevnikar said, “I don’t think of [resiliency] as ‘brushing the dirt off and carrying on’ but rather taking all that dirt with you to make better and more compassionate decisions for yourself and others.”