“Telling someone how you’re feeling can be lifesaving”: Student talks mental health

Leah Emily Duff spoke with The Journal to expand on the story behind her popular Facebook post

Leah Emily Duff will take a year off from school to focus on her mental health.
Supplied by Leah Emily Duff

Leah Emily Duff’s life at Queen’s started much like any other student.

She moved into Gordon Brockington House in September of 2017, hoping to major in psychology, but soon began to struggle with her mental and physical health. By the next year, Duff, ArtSci ’21, would be suffering from depression, anxiety, undiagnosed ADHD, and an eating disorder.

Last week, Duff made a Facebook post on Overheard at Queen’s describing her decision to take the upcoming year off to focus on her mental health. She received an outpouring of support from her peers. In an interview with The Journal, Duff expanded on her post and the story behind her departure.

Duff said her mental health deteriorated during her first two years of university. She was unable to make more than one sustainable friendship, causing her to isolate herself.

Academics also presented a challenge. While Duff was able to maintain 70s in most of her first-year courses, she realized during her second year she wouldn’t be able to pass.

One night in November 2018, in the middle of a crisis, Duff called Student Wellness Services hoping to find counselling support on the weekly or biweekly basis that she had become used to at her home in Ottawa.

When Duff was told the next available appointment would be in three months, she said she hung up the phone feeling “hopeless and really overwhelmed.”

“I didn’t know what to do, especially since I was already freaking out so much,” she said.

Although Duff was able to get some help on campus through academic accommodations, the wait times for a Queen’s counsellor continued to frustrate Duff throughout the semester.

Duff doesn’t blame Queen’s for this lapse, but sees it as a symptom of a wider problem with accessibility to mental health resources.

“It’s not just Queen’s,” she said. “It reflects the rest of society. It’s always hard to find therapy and mental health services. I was on a waiting list for two months outside of school, too.”

Due to the long wait times, Duff started looking for support outside Queen’s. She called helplines and looked into eating disorder programs at Kingston General Hospital, but said none of the resources available fit her needs. A private counsellor was $75 per session, which was far too expensive.

When Duff realized she needed to be at home in Ottawa where the majority of her supports were, she began to go through the appeal process to drop all her classes for the semester.

She was told by the Student Awards office it would be unlikely the school would allow her to drop all her classes unless she wrote a “thorough, genuine letter” detailing why she needed to leave Queen’s, as well as her plan to improve and return following recovery.

Writing this letter was a complex experience for Duff.

“It’s really difficult to put the right words to what you’re feeling,” she said.

After a two-month wait and a $50 fee, Duff’s appeal was granted. She returned to Ottawa with six weeks remaining in the semester and spent that time relaxing with family, hoping to return to Kingston in January.

A week after Duff returned in the new year, she said she was back to the same mental state she’d been in the semester before. She began another appeal process to drop her courses and go home.

Duff said going through the appeal process again was stressful.

“I didn’t want to give up again,” she said. “I felt like a failure. It took me a long time to accept that decision.”

The second appeal process took longer than the first, as by this point, Duff was having trouble leaving her house. When her appeal was finally granted in July 2019, after complications that lasted over three months and cost her missed exam fees that she couldn’t get reversed, she felt “mind blown.”

Duff walked into the summer adamant that she would return to Queen’s as a third-year student in the fall, but about a month into the summer she began to consider taking the year off.

“Admitting I needed that was a very hard decision to come by,” she said.

Duff said a drive through campus with her grandfather in early September left her feeling “really anxious and sad.”

A few days later, she decided to write a post in the Facebook group Overheard at Queen’s describing her story. At press time, that post had garnered more than 600 reactions.

Duff, who’s always wanted to be a mental health advocate, said she was “blown away” by the response.

“Getting out of bed can be hard,” she said “It’s better to celebrate little successes than focus on things you feel you’ve failed.”

For her year off, Duff plans to focus on recovery and work in a group home with people who have developmental disabilities.

“The most important thing for anybody feeling like things are hopeless or like they have no motivation to do anything to get out of a dark place is to tell somebody,” she said. “Telling someone how you’re feeling can be lifesaving. It can bring you one step closer to where you need to be.”

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