Not alone: A conversation with the Wash U Confessions admin

Mental health is without a doubt an issue at Washington University, and yet there is an apparent need amongst students to keep their struggles to themselves. As someone who has struggled with—and continues to battle against—mental health issues, I find issue with this.

I am writing today to encourage you—nay, plead to you—to reconsider the role of Student Health Services. This article is not so much informational as it is, I hope, inspirational, and I share the following for friends and strangers alike.

My impulse to write this article began when I was made aware of a message posted by the administrator on the Wash U Confessions website. It featured contact information for Uncle Joe’s Peer Counseling and Resource Center and Life Crisis Services, urging those who were depressed or suicidal to seek help.

I couldn’t help but think that if the admin of the page felt it necessary to include a message addressing mental health confessions, there must be an influx of such submissions apart from those being published. This idea frightens me.

Curious, I sent a Facebook message to Wash U Confessions explaining my interest in speaking with the admin and was delighted when I received a response. And, after some anonymous back-and-forth Q&A, the administrator agreed to meet with me at their apartment on Thursday afternoon.

Sitting across from the admin in their living room, I asked how many confessions they received per month regarding suicide or depression. Without a word, the admin sat down at their computer and pulled up a log of confessions.

I must disclose now that neither the admin nor I are privy to the identities of the confessors. When a confession reaches the admin, the only remnant of identity is an IP address, which is encrypted by a randomized key that changes every two hours.

By the time the admin had explained to me the intricacies of the confidentiality mechanisms in place, an astoundingly large list of 90 confessions were on the admin’s monitor. The admin had administered a simple keyword search for “suicide” and “depression.”

My eyes skimmed over post after post—students and faculty alike confessing their struggles with mental illness and their hesitancies to seek help from SHS. Confessors wrote about fear of parental judgment, fear of peer judgment, lack of confidence in SHS and various others reasons preventing them from seeking help.

As I had initially assumed from the presence of the message about depression and suicide on the submission page, none of the posts I saw were ultimately published by the admin. When I asked why, I received a shockingly honest answer.

“I used to post submissions about depression and suicide,” the admin said. “But it encouraged people to post more of them, and the situation snowballed out of control. Even though people felt less alone, the page motivated them to talk about killing themselves. I lose sleep worrying that someone really will take their own life.”

As I continued skimming the log of confessions, the sheer volume of mental illness-related submissions astounded me. It pains me to know that there are students on this campus walking around with such burdens. I cannot in good faith say that “I know what it is like,” because each person’s struggles are both unique and all too real. I can, however, speak to my own experiences, with the hope that my story can provoke you to seek help.

For as long as I can remember, I did everything in multiples of three. Blinking, clapping, checking the locks on the door, saying my own name. All this mayhem whilst in a perpetual state of panic and depression, and a complete inability to focus throughout high school, made life miserable for not just me, but for my family and friends as well.

Between the age of 16 and 20, I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, major depressive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I recall sitting outside of my high school’s health services building, on the phone with my mother (who, I must add, along with my father, has given me the strength to make it this far). My mom recommended I go inside and see the psychiatrist. I cursed and berated my mother and refused—for a host of reasons ranging from embarrassment to shame, I did not want to get help. It wasn’t until three weeks later when I had no strength left to fight on my own that I agreed to make an appointment with health services. And I can say with absolute confidence that the decision to do so was the greatest decision I have made.

Admittedly, things got worse before they got better. Months passed before I saw any concrete results, and I still seek help every few months to date. That said, I consider myself to be in absolute remission of my mental disorders. Despite the occasional twitch or extra squirt of Purell, the decision I made six years ago to seek help led me to this moment, a moment when I can confidently and openly confess my past and tell the tale of the bright future that is possible for everybody living in a troubled present.

I do not regret living the life I live, nor do I consider myself a victim of any mental health disorder. My experiences have made me the man I am today. Most importantly, I am telling you all of this because I want you to know that there is nothing wrong with you for feeling the way you do, and there is nothing to be ashamed of. More importantly, you are not alone, and I know firsthand that things can—and will—get better.

So please, if you are struggling, reach out to Student Health Services. Anonymous outlets such as Wash U Confessions are a great place to start, but go forth with that confidence and momentum and take the second step—perhaps the biggest step of them all—and speak with a professional. At the very least, you know you will have me to support you.

You may view the article in its original format here

Alex Siegman