The organization Active Minds held a mental health discussion panel on Wednesday, March 29.

The panel consisted of various individuals with various stories about their experiences with mental illness. These people ranged from students here at the college to KSC graduates.

According to the Active Minds club, “Active Minds at KSC is a chapter from the non-profit organization that focuses on fighting the stigma, and spreading awareness, of mental illness.” The non-profit organization is national and works to increase the understanding of mental illnesses and fight the negative stigma that surrounds them.

Active Minds on campus puts on events such as the panel to promote the awareness of the social stigma that is associated with mental illness.

The counseling center was present for support of students in the audience along with the Monadnock Area Peer Support Agency.

One student who shared her story was first-year Mackenzie Donovan. There’s a good chance you have seen her on campus with her service dog, Rue.

“Mental illness has been a huge part of my life from birth. My entire family suffers from it in one way or another,” Donovan said.

When Donovan was 10-years-old,  tourette syndrome, OCD and anxiety started to impact her, and it took her family a long time to realize that mental illness is real. Donovan describes herself as not being depressed during this time, but very lonely.

Olivia Belanger / Administrative Executive Editor

Olivia Belanger / Administrative Executive Editor

“My OCD drove me to do intense stuff. I won’t go into details, but I completely tore myself apart. When I was 12, I started having delusions and I believed the government was after me,” Donovan said.

This lead to three suicide attempts before the age of 16, according to Donovan. Recently, she has just told her family about the government delusions and came out of it over winter break.

Donovan said her delusions stemmed from wanting someone to want her because she said she doesn’t have many friends. Rue is trained to mitigate her delusions to allow her to function day to day. Donovan said it is unbelievable to her that she lived and believed in her delusions for so long and just recently told others about it.

“Coming to college was a very big thing for me, and as I was slipping out of the delusions…I began to come back to reality and realize how important college and a career is. Due to my OCD, when my professor posts something on Canvas that isn’t due until the end of the semester, I will do it right away. I’ll sit on my computer and continually refresh the page in case there’s a new assignment,” Donovan said.

As much as Donovan loves Rue, she is working to learn how to manage herself on her own so she, one day, doesn’t need a service dog. She said, “As much as I love having her [Rue], people are just so disrespectful. Rue is the reason I am here today.”

Another student, junior Heather Fougere, spoke out about her struggles with her mental illness. “[To my friends] I’m classified as a mother hen because I like taking care of my flock, but I take care of flock better than I take care of myself,” Fougere said.

Fougere has to continuously fight the various stigmas in her life. She said, “I suffer from depression and anxiety. I am high functioning, but on the inside I’m not doing so hot. Recently is when I have had to focus on myself rather than other people, but I really like focusing on other people more.”

Recently, Fougere got an emotional support animal that she finds helpful in her life. Her cat, Olive, lives in her residence hall with her.

Fougere didn’t realize she had anxiety because she thought the things she was thinking were normal for everyone to be thinking about all the time. She said she is lucky to have a doctor who is very aware of who she is and they were very helpful in identifying her anxiety.

Olivia Belanger / Administrative Executive Editor

Olivia Belanger / Administrative Executive Editor

Something Fougere recently came to terms with is PTSD. Her father was in a very bad car accident that paralyzed him. It has stayed with her longer than she thought it would and getting into cars is very scary for her.

“Last year, I got to the point that if I didn’t have a commitment to go to I would be in my room in the dark and just staring out my window. Just because I do so many things on campus doesn’t mean I can’t suffer from this struggle. I thought taking medication is the worst thing ever; it took a long time for me to come to terms with,” Fougere said.

Fougere wanted to remind people, “Everything is temporary. Keep that in mind; it can always get better, even if it gets worse first.”

Lastly, 33-year-old sophomore Dante Diffendale was there to speak out about the experiences within his life. Diffendale is a transgender male and said having to hide who he really was all these years as impacted his mental illness.

“Everything bad that you can think about that can happen to a little girl happened to me. I grew up in a really crappy household. I have parents that suffered from substance misuse disorders. I was taken away from my birth family and put in a foster home. That was the first time that I felt like I didn’t fit into my surroundings,” Diffendale said.

He continued, “My adoptive father is an alcoholic and is still very active in his addiction. My adoptive mom is my warrior and my cheerleader in life.”

Diffendale is recovering not only from addiction, but other things as well such as physical and sexual abuse, self harm and injury, negative self-injury and eating disorders.

Diffendale has gone through 19 suicide attempts and three overdoses.

Diffendale said he finds it interesting that everyone on the panel had talked about being bullied. “I am going to echo the same thing. I was bullied all the way through high school until I graduated,” Diffendale said.

He continued, “If I had one penny for every time someone either directly to my face or indirectly talking to someone else called me a bad name or said something bad about me, I could probably pay for the rest of my school and probably half of your school too.”

Diffendale describes his life as “climbing hurdles.” He said, “I have done a lot of physical activity because being busy and having something to do cuts down on my brain being able to negatively talk to me.”

Taking the step to come to college wasn’t easy for Diffendale. “When I came to Keene State, the stigma I faced and what society told me was that I wasn’t going to have friends, be able to do anything and I was going to live the life of being miserable. My mental illness proves to me that these thoughts are so far off,” he said.

Though he is 33-years-old, Diffendale believes he is really just starting his true life. He claimed he gets to dictate how society sees himself, but even more so how he sees himself.

As Diffendale has been in the process of transitioning, he said naming yourself isn’t as easy as you would think it would be. “I spent three weeks looking through names and I could not find something that felt right. So I reached out to friends and we researched names. Having supportive friends helps in every aspect of my life. It’s an amazing feeling to have people who completely support who I am,” DIffendale said.

He continued, “Dante has rich history. In the poem ‘Dante’s Inferno,’ he walked through the gates of hell and came out a new person.”

Emma Hamilton can be contacted at ehamilton@kscequinox.com