Author and activist Alyse Schacter spoke to a group of about 100 John Carroll students on Tuesday, Feb. 16 regarding mental illness and the issues surrounding it.
Originally from Canada, 25-year-old Schacter has been traveling around Canada and the United States, speaking to groups about her struggle with mental illness. To date, she has made around 600 speeches.
“When I was in fifth grade, I was accepted into the gifted program in school, and because of the high stress, I stopped eating and sleeping became hard.” Schacter began. She would soon realize that what she was experiencing was the first stages of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD.
When she was forced to stay home due to illness in the seventh grade, Schacter’s OCD made itself apparent.
“I had been in bed with a high fever and wanted to brush my teeth. When my parents came home from work about an hour later, I was still brushing the same tooth and I could not stop.” Schacter said.
The OCD that Schacter experienced was debilating. “I felt like I couldn’t get through tasks without repeating,” she said. She also describes being late to class because she was convinced that something bad would happen if she stepped on a crack on the floor, and kept on returning back to the front of the building to start over. She also had a superstition regarding the number seven, and anytime she heard or read it she would make a high pitched noise.
Simple, mundane tasks would take her hours. Showering would take up whole days, with Schacter spending seven to eight hours in the shower, and getting dressed could take up to three hours.
She was first hospitalized at age twelve for her OCD. It was here that she realized that everyone is affected by mental illness, no matter what age, gender or ethnicity.
She stayed three months in the hospital, but in the tenth grade her mental illness became too hard to handle. She dropped out of school and began volunteering full time. She entered the hospital again, for six months this time, but her illness was not responding to treatment.
Schacter enrolled in a GED program, and the summer before her senior year, she was excepted into the Harvard University mental illness unit, where she would stay for 90 days to try treatment-exposure response therapy, which is a therapy that tries to expose people to their triggers in order to desensitize them and lessen the effects.
At this point in her life, Schacter was spending about 18 hours a day in rituals, and was sent home from Harvard after 31 days because her illness was too severe.
However, she did learn a lot of skills from her month at Harvard. “I saw people who were adults, who had jobs and families and children, who also had mental illness. I saw that it would be possible for me to live with OCD,” she said.
Schacter later went to college in her hometown, and it was here where she really conquered her OCD.
She discovered “an amazing group of friends, who were gradually aware of my rituals, but I still felt the need to hide it from them.”
Her friends only found out about her mental illness when a documentary that detailed her battle came out, and her friends started asking about the girl on the television that looked like her and had her name.
When she finally did come out to her friends about her illness, she felt relieved.
Today, Schacter is applying to medical schools and only has triggers for about two to three hours a day. She shares her story because she hopes that it will inspire communication amongst the public about mental illness.
“With stuff like diabetes and cancer, every knows about it, but with mental health stuff, every is so scared to talk about it. We may not know someone is suffering, but every single person knows someone who has suffered with mental illness.”
Schacter closed the speech by urging everyone to have courage about mental illness and talk about it even though it is uncomfortable.
“For me, I never really feel angry, but I would get so frustrated. Labels are so damaging, and we can work on watching our language that could possibly be damaging people. I feel like even with the changes we have made there is still a lot of work to be done.”
As for advice for others who may be experiencing mental illness, Schacter said, “Be really aware of those around you. Be brave. Be courageous. Talk to people. Be a supportive friend. If you are struggling, reach out. If we start talking about this and doing something about it there will be real change.”
She went on to say to those with mental illness, “You deserve to be happy. And sometimes, these things get in the way of you being as happy as possible. But reach out. You will be so surprised at how much support you will get from others. You are going to conquer so many things. So many good things come from the worst things.
Sophomore Ashley Johenning was happy that Schacter came to speak, saying “I thought it was really great. It’s something really important.”