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Duck Syndrome: University students struggling to keep up appearances

The hidden struggle of university students to perform and appear as normal while under the surface they are struggling to cope is so common it’s got a name: Duck Syndrome.

Former engineering student advised to re-consider whether engineering was right fit mid-depression

Linh Lu was learning to become a mechanical engineer in 2012 in the midst of a major depressive episode. With limited support available on campus at the time, it took Lu some time to determine what would come next. Today, Lu is a mental health advocate on campus. (Kim Nakrieko/CBC)

The hidden struggle of university students to perform and appear as normal while under the surface they are struggling to cope is so common it's got a name: Duck Syndrome.

Coined at Stanford, the term implies that all looks calm on the surface, while underneath there's a lot more going on.

Linh Lu is familiar with the feeling.

In 2012, the former University of Alberta student was working towards a degree in mechanical engineering when things started to change.

"I started noticing (I was) just not really being excited by my courses, really apathetic, really just not into it," Lu said.

Every day became a struggle to function, to get to classes, to pay attention. The formerly social student suddenly found it hard to to interact with friends.

"Thinking back, that was one of the first signs for me."

But Lu didn't connect the symptoms until a biology professor wanted to talk about Lu's fluctuating interest and attention in the classroom.

"That professor said 'I think you might be showing signs of depression,'" Lu said.

Based upon that recommendation, Lu sought out help.

"It was really tough, but I did realize that I had a major depressive episode and it was (caused by) a multitude of things," said Lu, who identifies as gender-neutral and was in the midst of coming out on the LGBTQ spectrum at the time.

"I was undergoing a lot and really had to think about what were my priorities and what I needed to do."

At the time, mental health was not a well-discussed issued on campus or in the engineering faculty, Lu said.

"We knew we were undergoing a tough program and a lot of people failed out and that was the norm."

That was also the message relayed by the associate dean Lu visited to discuss what was going on.

"Unfortunately, a lot of students go through that, and from the dean's perspective, you know, he's just going through them. If you don't have a valid reason — so for mine, having a major depression, not knowing how to handle it, not having my whole life and world shaken from that — was not a good enough reason."

The dean told Lu to think about whether engineering was the right fit.

Identifying priorities

Following that meeting, Lu opted to transfer out of engineering, settling for a time into the arts faculty studying human geography.

"But even so, that was just me taking on that flapping duck syndrome, still trying to be positive, trying to be upbeat, trying to take that on and still carry on … but really, I never had a framework to think about mental health."

In the end, Lu quit school completely, but remains active on campus advocating for mental health.

"Since then, I've really tried to take means to balance out my life and really think it's not just what I do and being productive that matters — but having things that really uplift me … and doing things that really matter to me."

In the 18 months since Lu left class, there's been a dramatic shift in how mental health is talked about. Professors are now regularly trained in how to recognize red flag behaviours in students.

Lu also stresses the importance of knowing and leaning on your support network in tough times.

"The world is always going to be tough and the world is always going to stress you out, but I think knowing your supports really matters," Lu said.

"Busting that myth ... is really important."

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