Campus

Going in circles: a mental health crisis on campus

We enter the mind of a student with bipolar disorder. Blake Horsley shares his deepest fears while battling a mental illness during college.
Listen to the full episode30:38

[WARNING: CONTAINS MATURE CONTENT]

This story tackles the mental health crisis on campus. A shocking 25 percent of students are living with mental illness right now. It's in these years, late teens to early twenties, that psychiatric disorders are most likely to appear.

I think that's one of hardest things I've ever had to deal with, is losing a grip on stability and reality, and publicly, people seeing it. There's so much shame involved with that, you feel so much stigma.

Going to college or university has never been easy. People move out on their own, struggle with social acceptance, experiment with drugs and alcohol, and deal with mounting academic workloads. The pressures that come with so many new responsibilities, away from home, can be a breaking point for many.

In this story, we enter the mind of a student with bipolar disorder. Blake Horsley shares a deeply personal story of what it's like to live with the mental illness. His darkest fears turn into immense frustration as he continuously finds himself going in circles.

ACCEPTING THE DIAGNOSIS

We've all felt happy, sad and angry. It's normal. But if you're suffering from bipolar disorder, those emotions can be magnified at such an intense level, you can completely lose control of yourself. And that can be extremely dangerous. The most common trigger of mental illness is stress. And that was certainly the case with Blake in high school.

"It's hard to accept mental illness when you're mentally ill. But when you get mentally healthy, it's easy to say, 'Oh I am bipolar, or I am depressed,' because you don't feel it. But when you're going through the actual sickness, it's one of those things, it's hard to stomach."  
During his senior year, pressure quickly mounted for him -- he was on the varsity wrestling team, worked after classes to save up for tuition, and was trying to maintain good grades. Gradually, as the pressure took its toll, he began feeling sad, and started missing classes. And when he did attend classes, he struggled to focus, and mostly just stared blankly at the wall. "I would think people were looking at me, and they were laughing at me. And I would walk down the hallways and I would feel people laughing at me, I would feel people judging me, and feel people hating me. I was delusional," Blake recalls.
Blake, as a child in school photo

It wasn't long before Blake's father noticed that his son wasn't doing well. The telltale signs were all too familiar -- he had seen those same symptoms manifest themselves under the same roof with Blake's mother. When Blake was just seven years old, his mother was hospitalized.

"I was taken to the hospital, and I was eager to see the woman I love more than anything. And when I got to the hospital, she was in a coma, and she had tubes up her nose. She was barely alive, because she had attempted to take her life. She had been diagnosed bipolar one disorder soon afterwards," Blake remembers.

So knowing the family history, Blake's father brought him to the hospital, where he was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Doctors immediately put him on medication, but it was difficult for Blake to come to terms with the diagnosis. "It's hard to accept mental illness when you're mentally ill. But when you get mentally healthy, it's easy to say, 'Oh I am bipolar, or I am depressed,' because you don't feel it. But when you're going through the actual sickness, it's one of those things, it's hard to stomach," Blake said.   

When Blake was just seven, his mother attempted suicide, and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

FIRST MANIC EPISODE IN COLLEGE

Blake eventually accepted his diagnosis and managed to live a stable life. He finished high school and took a job at a local gym to keep saving for college. Life, for the most part, was normal. So normal, in fact, Blake decided he didn't need his meds anymore, so he stopped. At first, everything was fine. He had a stable routine. And then he stepped foot on campus.

They said, 'Take this pill,' and they put this pill on my tongue, Olanzapine. They said, 'Let it dissolve, it'll make you feel better.' And then I woke up, tied to a bed, and they relieved my restraints, and I was in a psychiatric ward for the second time in my life.

During his first psychology class, everyone was asked to do a social experiment on themselves. The assignment was to try and get rid of a tick, such as nail biting, or tapping your feet. Blake decided he wanted to get rid of his bipolar disorder. He excitedly went home and got started. He began writing, and writing, but didn't stop. He had no idea that the assignment would trigger his first manic episode.

"Now at this point in my life, I've never experienced mania before. I've experienced severe depression, psychosis in high school, and I've been diagnosed bipolar. But there was never really any proof that I was bipolar because I never went to the opposite side, the higher side, the manic side," Blake said. 
Blake had two stints in the psychiatric ward during his time in college.

Blake suddenly found himself in the throes of complete mania. His thoughts were racing at an uncontrollable pace and in a million different directions. To an outsider, this stream of consciousness would be impossible to comprehend. But for Blake, in that moment, everything made sense. And he absolutely had to capture it, every single thought, no matter how long it took.

He wrote, "3:03 a.m. on September 11, 2000 whatever. I'm pointing up, I'm pointing at god, I'm going down, always have an open mind, always have an open mind, is that how you spell open? This is the opposite. I'm concluding, I'm concluding this could all be math. Therefore, there's nothing to be afraid of. I know, and I question, and got more scared."

Blake kept writing, and writing, without sleep, for 48 hours. Eventually, his father noticed what was happening, and coaxed him into going for a car ride, then drove him to the psychiatric ward. And after a lengthy stay in hospital, Blake took the rest of that school year off. But he was determined to get his college diploma, so he returned to campus the next fall with a clean slate.

Blake, front and centre, seen here with friends at college

BACK TO SCHOOL

At first, things went well. He regained stability. He was also relieved that his manic episode happened off-campus, where no one witnessed his breakdown. "It was a chance to hit on a girl, and not know that you're bipolar. Or it was a chance to do a presentation, and no one knows that you have severe anxiety. It was just a chance to just be me, without being sick. So when I got the clean slate, no one really knew," Blake recalls.

I was standing in the shower, I immediately thought of slitting my wrist, and I thought of leaving that place. I didn't want to be at that place, I wanted to escape, I wanted to die.

Blake was finally at a place he always wanted to be; thriving at school, both academically and socially. It's something all students strive for at campus. But there is also a large group that just can't sit back and enjoy the ride. Remember that stat -- 25 percent of students at campus are struggling with a mental illness. And for them, at any moment, everything can change. And for Blake, the trigger this time was Barack Obama's presidential inauguration speech. At first, he was ecstatic to be watching history happen, but then things quickly became overwhelming.

"Crying in front of people you wanna be friends with, you want to be cool in front of, you wanna be accepted by; so much of school is about being accepted socially. And in those moments that I was crying, I was different from everyone, because no one else was crying. No one else was putting themselves in such a vulnerable state. So it was like, all eyes were on a TV, but all eyes were on me," Blake remembers.

Blake left campus that day completely ashamed. He couldn't handle knowing that he had a manic breakdown in public, in front of all his peers. "I was standing in the shower, I immediately thought of slitting my wrist, and I thought of leaving that place. I didn't want to be at that place, I wanted to escape, I wanted to die," Blake said.

Blake makes a list of his fears. Writing has become an outlet to voice his anxieties.

DROPPING OUT

Following another stint at the psychiatric ward, he decided to return to classes right away. But the problem was, he didn't allow himself time to heal and stabilize. The medication was taking its toll - he was never in a good mood, and was constantly falling asleep in class. On top of that, he couldn't get over the embarrassment of having a manic episode on campus. It became a losing battle for Blake. He turned to his program coordinator at school, who advised him to take some time off.

"I was very hard on myself. I had gone to school once and failed already. And I'm gonna go a second time and fail. In the end, it was my mental illness that caused me to drop out of school because I didn't have enough control over it," Blake reflected.

I just felt like there was something wrong with me, you know. And I was just afraid that people would see that. I was very afraid that people would see my mental health issues. And I was very afraid that people would say that I was crazy.
For Blake, walking off campus, in a way, was like being released from prison. He was bound by the social pressures of campus life, and confined by the embarrassment of breaking down in front of his peers. "I just felt like there was something wrong with me, you know. And I was just afraid that people would see that. I was very afraid that people would see my mental health issues. And I was very afraid that people would say that I was crazy," Blake said of dropping out.
Despite battling bouts of mania, Blake says he's currently healthy.

Blake may have truly saved his life by walking away from campus -- and taking the time to focus on his mental health. And while he has regrets of dropping out, he's now at a place where he can see how the experience changed him for the better.

"My experiences on campus, gave me the confidence to be open about my illness. Because when I was on campus, I didn't really have a choice, my illness was open. Everyone saw it. So when that happened, you've faced your fears, you've gotten in front of an audience. Now, continue walking with this illness, and walking with this disability, and carrying yourself along the way and being completely proud of yourself the whole time."


EXTRA | When you listen to Blake's story, you realize how lucky he was to have someone in his life who recognized the signs of mental illness early on. His father could see that Blake was battling some of the same personal demons that Blake's mother had for years. It was that past experience that led to an intervention that may have saved Blake's life.

The shock was beyond devastating. There are really no words for that loss of your child. When those signs were glaring at us, we couldn't help what we couldn't see, or understand.

But many parents don't have those experiences to draw from -- and the signs of mental illness end up going unnoticed, especially when kids are away from home.

This is what happened to Lynn Keane. In 2009, she lost her son Daniel to suicide.Today, Lynn is a highly respected voice on youth depression and suicide prevention. In a candid interview, we talk to her about her experience and what can be learned from Blake's story.