When faced with someone showing symptoms of depression and/or suicidal behaviour, only the person who recognizes these symptoms and this behaviour will realize the person requires help.
I learned this lesson when I sat at Innis Town Hall’s theatre to watch one of the Asian Reel Film Festival’s films, In Her Place. Originally, I thought I would be watching a film touching on the theme of being a diasporic Asian. It turned out the short film preceding In Her Place focused on this theme, but In Her Place didn’t. In Her Place delved into the unfortunate reasons and dire consequences of being unware of the symptoms of depression and suicidal behaviour.
In Her Place is a film that takes place in the countryside of South Korea. A woman from Seoul arrives in rural South Korea and strikes a deal with a family living there: She wants to adopt the unborn child of the family’s teen daughter. As such, the city woman and the daughter’s mother agree that the city woman will stay with them until the daughter gives birth to the child. Afterwards, the city woman will take the baby back with her to Seoul.
From there on, the film focuses on the daughter and the turmoil of emotions inside her. After her unexpected pregnancy, her mother hovers over her at every moment. She forbids her daughter from seeing her boyfriend, despite her pleas—though, unbeknown to her daughter, the mother does this because she knows the town will shun her if they find out about her pregnancy. The mother is also hyper-aware of her daughter’s physical state as her daughter’s pregnancy goes on, always reminding her to eat well so the baby will be healthy.
However, she doesn’t realize her daughter doesn’t want the pregnancy. To the daughter, the pregnancy is nothing but a hindrance. It was unintended—an accident. And yet, now, because of this pregnancy and child, the daughter can’t see her boyfriend. She won’t even be keeping the baby after it’s born. Her pregnancy will not benefit her, so she comes to hate her pregnant state. Contrarily, the mother assumes her daughter wants the baby to be healthy and wants the adoption, never stopping to realize the daughter’s lack of acceptance of the pregnancy, as well as her lack of investment in a healthy outcome for the baby.
Through subtle action and indirect conversations, it becomes apparent the girl feels like she’s losing control of her own life. Yet she doesn’t feel like she can confide about her worries with anyone. She keeps them bottled up inside of her, withdrawing from everyone. As the film goes on, viewers see her gradual descent to depression and her decision, at the end, to end her life.
To say the film left me distressed, heartbroken, and on the verge of tears would be an understatement.
At the Asian Reel Film Festival’s panel a few days afterwards, the director, Albert Shin, elaborated on his film. To him, there are “no bad people” in the film.
He does an excellent job of showing this. Every character in his film is fleshed out and complex, and none of them can be categorized as good or evil. There truly are no bad people in this film. The characters don’t mean to make others suffer, yet their actions inevitably cause suffering nonetheless; in the case of the girl, it ends with her decision to end her life.
As I saw in the film, the girl suffers because of her mother’s actions. In her eyes, her mother is preventing her from seeing her lover, and her mother is making her carry a child she doesn’t want. Of course, viewers see the mother doesn’t mean for her actions to be perceived this way. The director explains the mother’s actions are “well-meaning.” She wants to protect her daughter from stigma, and she wants her daughter’s baby to be safe and delivered to someone who can take care of her—the city woman. However, this becomes what he calls “misplaced love.”
It’s clear the mother loves her daughter, but unfortunately, sometimes it just doesn’t come through in the right direction. Perhaps the mother should have let her daughter see her boyfriend, but she was only doing what she thought was best for her. She doesn’t mean to isolate her daughter or make her feel powerless; she just wants to protect her. However, the daughter doesn’t see this. She feels “inadequate.”
To viewers, her feeling of inadequacy is visible. However, this inadequacy is much more visible to us because because the girl is the center of our focus—we see the details only someone who is observant around her would notice. We see she suffers from depression. We see she needs help.
If the mother knew her daughter was suffering, she would have obviously tried to help. However, she doesn’t notice, and it’s understandable. She’s busy working long hours as a labourer. She’s busy ensuring her daughter and the baby are healthy. Though there are times when her daughter shows obvious signs of depression, she seems to dismiss them as her daughter simply feeling a little down, perhaps because of her daughter’s pregnancy or perhaps because she is unable to see her boyfriend; regardless, the mother doesn’t recognize her daughter’s behaviour reveals certain symptoms of depression and suicidal behaviour—she doesn’t recognize them until it’s too late.
If there’s one thing this film taught me, it’s this: Be aware of the symptoms of depression and recognize suicidal behaviour. Consider registering for one of U of T’s safeTALK: Suicide Alertness For Everyone workshop, and check out Madelin’s post on her experience with safeTALK.
If you ever have the chance to watch the film, please watch it. The film combines amazing cinematography, a complex cast of characters, a heartbreaking and engaging story, and many, many important themes and messages I will never forget.
In addition to attending the film and panel, I had the honour of interviewing a U of T Health and Wellness personal counsellor, Dr. Kate Witheridge, about recognizing the symptoms of mental illness and how to seek help.
Do you find students have difficulty booking their first appointment? If so, why?
I think it depends on the person. Some people have difficulty because it’s their first time seeking help, and they’re not sure how to do that or what to expect. Sometimes people are also embarrassed; they don’t want to tell people they’re feeling anxious or feeling depressed, and they are worried about talking about it for the first time. I also think there are barriers of not knowing how to get to the services they need or what services they need.
Other people who have been to treatment before or have had friends or family who sought treatment or counselling here may be more open to it. I think it depends on whether the student has done it before, or if they have other support, or if this is the first time they sought treatment.
What advice would you offer to students wanting to take that first step?
Sometimes students think, “Am I the only person who’s experienced this?” or “If I talk about something personal, are people going to judge me or think my problems are silly or not important or embarrassing?” I often say to people who come visit me, “I’ve probably heard about it before and we might have some techniques to help you.” I think people are worried I won’t be able to help them. We know about things like anxiety, depression, relationships, and stress while being at school; we have techniques to help them.
Also it helps to know that we are here to help, and there’s no problem too big or too small for us. I think it can be hard to talk with somebody you don’t know or when you don’t know what’s going on. All of us are here to support students. We’re here because we enjoy working with students, and we want to help students. For students to know we actually like it and want to support students could be helpful.
They can also seek treatment and help from other resources on campus. There’s counselling with us, peer mentorship, counsellors at different faculties—engineering, dentistry and some of the colleges. There may be connections closer to where they’re going to school.
Also, we’ve all been through university, and we can understand what it’s like to be stressed about exams or midterms or relationships or being away from home for the first time. It’s helpful for students to know that we are here to help, and we can relate to experiences.
What would you say to students who fear possible stigma?
There are a lot of things that are common in university students. Within this population, the two main things people come in for are anxiety and depression. It’s common for student to feel sad or anxious, so it’s good to understand that although people don’t always talk about it, we, from this side, see a lot of this. You aren’t alone. There are other people who experience anxiety and depression.
Maybe you might feel anxious now, but with treatment, you’re not going to be constantly anxious. Or with depression, similar sometimes to physical illnesses—maybe once you get treatment, you’ll feel better. We can work on decreasing that depression and decreasing that anxiety. They’re similar to symptoms of stomach aches or allergies where we can actually look [the symptoms] up and get the treatment.
How can students find out about these symptoms?
You can always go to our website to look up this information. The other places I would recommend are the Canada Psychological Association; they have information, such as when to seek treatment, things about counselling—that’s a great resource. Also, the Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies has some great handouts and self-help worksheets as well. Both websites also have great resources, such as, “What does counselling looks like?” or “What would happen if I did go to a psychologist or a counsellor?” That’s always helpful in terms of helping people seek treatment to understand what it looks like. Sometimes we see things on TV, and it’s usually psychoanalysis on a couch. In reality, a lot of counselling is just talking about what those difficulties are and teaching people coping skills.
So you can go to our website or you can go to the other websites to find out the common symptoms; it’s also a great way to find out what counselling looks like and what exactly goes on. It can help students understand what they’re looking for or realize, “Oh yeah I fit into that category where I do have anxiety in this situation,” or “I do notice it’s hard for me to get out of bed,” and “This is what counselling might look like.”
What advice would you offer to a student if the student notices these symptoms in a friend?
I always recommend talking to friends about what they notice. I recommend them talking about behaviours. “So I noticed you’ve been missing class,” or “I’ve noticed you don’t seem as happy as before,” or “I noticed you’re really anxious about coming out with us,” and not put labels, such as, “You seem really depressed,” or “You seem anxious” because I think any of us might react defensively. But if we talk about things in terms of behaviours you’re concerned about, such as, “Is there anything you want to talk about?” or “Is there anything we can do to help?” people who are anxious, depressed, angry, or stressed out will notice and say, “Thanks for asking. I’m having difficulty in this.” People might feel less judged if you bring it up this way.
It’s a great way of bringing up those things without making people feel defensive, but also a way to say, “I haven’t noticed you coming to class as much,” or “I’m concerned about this.”
Have you ever watched a film or attended a panel that taught you something about mental illness? Let me know in the comments below, or through @lifeatuoft on Twitter!