When it comes to depression, no one is immune

'Real World' star goes public with her own mental health struggle

April 27, 2003|By Mike Morris | Mike Morris,Sun Staff

Cara Kahn's college days were filled with a supportive family, good grades, a steady boyfriend and an active social life.

So why would she want to spend so much time sleeping?

"I was depressed," said Kahn, who starred in MTV's reality-based The Real World, Chicago. "I would sleep 12 hours a night, wake up, have three bowls of cereal, watch TV and go take a four-hour nap.

"Everyone deals with depression differently," the aspiring actress said, "but for me it was getting a lot of sleep -- just hiding from the world, literally pulling the covers over my head, curling up into a ball and just not wanting to face what was out there."

Kahn, 23, was diagnosed with depression during her sophomore year in high school. After years of ups and downs, she is learning how to cope with an illness that affects an estimated 17 million American adults.

Using her celebrity status, Kahn hopes to educate and encourage college students suffering from depression by touring campuses nationwide as part of a campaign called GOAL -- Go On And Live.

Hundreds of Towson University students gathered earlier this month to hear her speak in the university's student union, along with local experts, on the subject of depression.

"I think with any mental health disorder there's a tendency to think: Girl Interrupted, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- you know, like nuts," she said. "It's often a lot more mild than that. It's a lot more mainstream, I think, than people realize."

According to statistics from Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, sponsors of the 10-stop college tour and makers of Effexor XR, the antidepressant Kahn takes, approximately 1.5 million college students suffer from depression. The last U.S. Census reported that about 16 million students are enrolled in American universities.

Leaving home combined with the pressure to succeed and anxiety about the future can all trigger depression among students, said Kahn and other panelists, including a Towson University counseling center doctor, a Baltimore psychiatrist and the director of adult education for the state's Mental Health Association.

"A big part of my message with the GOAL campaign is that depression does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone," Kahn said.

"The first thing that a lot of people say when I tell them that I was diagnosed with depression is, 'What do you have to be depressed about?' I was social. I was popular. I did have a boyfriend. I did have great girlfriends. I had a great family. I didn't have money problems. I was well-liked -- and it didn't matter."

Statistics from the National Mental Health Association show that women outnumber men 2-to-1 with the disease, although some panelists said the ratio may be misleading because many men are unwilling to talk about depression.

At the Towson event, Hassan Brown, a senior nursing major, was applauded for his willingness to talk about being diagnosed with dysthymia, a form of depression involving chronic periods of sadness. He said the presentation, which offered free depression screenings, really "hit home" for him and that universities and high schools should have more programs similar to GOAL.

Dr. Gregory Reising, associate director of Towson University's counseling center, said the first step for those experiencing symptoms of depression is to make an appointment with a family doctor, social worker or psychologist for an evaluation. Most depressed people can benefit from counseling, he said, while some may need medication, or both.

"We all know life gives us our ups and downs," Reising said. "It's important not to confuse this with clinical depression -- when your mood goes down and stays down; when you stop enjoying things and have a sense of meaninglessness."

For Kahn, the activities she stopped enjoying were sports.

A star field hockey and lacrosse player in high school in Massa-chusetts, she couldn't muster the strength or interest to play after age 15.

Her mother suggested that they visit a doctor, and Kahn began taking medication and participating in talk therapy. Her symptoms started to improve, and by her senior year she was captain of her school's field hockey team.

After high school she enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was selected from thousands of applicants by MTV producers to participate in The Real World's 11th season. She was taped for four months living in a Chicago apartment with six others for the documentary-style series. On the show it was revealed that she suffers from depression, something she was embarrassed about at the time.

Then she received e-mail from fans thanking her for helping them cope with their depression. This, in part, prompted her participation in the GOAL campaign.

Since filming The Real World, Kahn has graduated from college with a degree in theatre, moved to Los Angeles for seven months and now lives with her parents in St. Louis, where she works at a clothing store.

"I'm trying to get the message out that, look, life can go on with depression," she said.

For college students suffering from depression:

* Don't go solo. Seek help from the university counseling service, student health center, a mental health professional or family physician.

* Prioritize. Gain a sense of control over your life by prioritizing your tasks.

* Get plenty of rest. Fatigue can trigger depression.

* Find an extracurricular activity. Such outlets provide a welcome change from classwork.

* Seek support. Sharing your emotions with others helps to reduce a sense of isolation.

* Try relaxation methods. Meditation, exercise, even a warm bath, may help ease your stress.

* Work toward recovery: Seeking treatment is the most important step in combating depression.

Source: National Mental Health Association

Resources

* American College Health Association: 410-859-1500; www.acha.org

* Anxiety Disorders Association of America: 240-485-1001; www.adaa.org

* American Psychological

Association: 800-964-2000; www.apa.org

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