Kirsten O'Brien/The AS Review

They are conditions that others cannot see, feel, hear or touch. They are invisible to the rest of the world, but for the sufferer they are intensely real and can be immensely debilitating. For the nearly 55 million Americans who suffer from anxiety or depression, these conditions can be just as serious as any physical disability or impairment.

To help students understand and cope with these mental health issues, the Disability Outreach Center will be hosting the “Depression and Anxiety Panel” on Jan. 26 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Science, Mathematics and Technology Education lecture hall 120. The panel will be comprised of Western psychology professors, Health and Wellness Services staff members, Counseling Center psychologists and students who have had experiences with depression or anxiety. The members of the panel will speak on the causes of depression and anxieties, what kind of treatment options are available and what resources Western provides in order to help students cope with their mental health issues.

“It will be a time for students to ask questions, get information and share their experiences and stories,” said Brandi Ball, DOC assistant coordinator.

Ball explained that many people might not even realize that depression and anxiety can be considered disabilities.

“A disability is anything that keeps you from doing everyday things,” she said. “Many conditions could be considered disabilities; they could be physical or mental. We want to open people’s eyes to the fact that a disability can be a lot more than something that other people can see.”

Ball said that sometimes students suffering from anxiety or depression do not even realize that there is help available for them or that both are very real mental health conditions.

“We hope that by associating the word ‘disability’ with depression and anxiety that people will take both conditions seriously and be more likely to get help if they need it,” she said. “We’re trying to take the stigma away from getting help for these problems.”

Kim Thiessen works as an accommodation counselor in Western’s disAbility Resources for Students’ office helping students acquire the resources they need to be successful in class. Thiessen said that there are a number of ways the university can help students cope with their depression and anxiety in the classroom.

“Every person is different and no two people have the same circumstances, but we can do things like provide referrals to mental health professionals in the community or here at Western,” she said. “We can also offer students ways to cope with test anxiety, like allowing them to have more time to take tests or allowing them to take tests in our office.”

While depression and anxiety may not be as openly talked about as other disabilities, that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as prevalent. According to statistics compiled by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, a national non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention and treatment of anxiety disorders, such disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States. Forty million people, or 18 percent of the population ages 18 and over, suffer from some form of an anxiety disorder. In addition, the ADAA found that nearly one half of those who were diagnosed with depression were also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Toi Geil, a licensed psychologist and staff member in Western’s Counseling Center, explained there could be any number of explanations for why some people suffer from depression or anxiety. She said that many variables and experiences factor into how an individual views their world, and sometimes past events or traumas might cause someone to be more susceptible to anxious or depressive tendencies than someone without a traumatic background. Genetic makeup can also play a factor in determining how people respond to stress, but ultimately, there is no definitive answer or explanation as to why some people tend to be more depressed or anxious than others.

“As a scientist, there are times when we just have to admit that we don’t know,” Geil said. “The more we learn about these disorders, the more we realize how little we actually know. Our knowledge is constantly changing.”

Geil said it is normal for everyone to go through periods where they feel some degree of depression or anxiety, but it is time to seek help when the symptoms start to interfere with everyday activities.

“If symptoms of depression or anxiety start to get in the way of someone’s ability to function, that’s when it’s an issue,” she said. “People with concerns should see a mental health professional, because there are so many different treatment options available.”

Geil said that cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxation techniques, group therapy, medication therapy and numerous other techniques are effective ways to tackle these conditions. Despite the amount of help and range of treatment options available, the ADAA found that only one third of those suffering from anxiety or depression actually seek treatment.

Diagnosing these disorders can sometimes be tricky, Geil said. She said that because of the complexity of the human brain and the wide range of emotions people feel, it can be hard to definitively diagnose someone with anxiety or depression based on the symptoms listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the publication used to by the American Psychiatric Association to diagnose and treat patients. She said that diagnosis depends on the frequency and intensity of symptoms, as well as how disruptive they are in a person’s life.

Geil said that even if someone has been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, it is important to remember that the diagnosis should not define their identity.

“We’re so much bigger than a collection of symptoms, and we do a great disservice to ourselves when we reduce ourselves to labels,” Geil said. “You may experience depression or anxiety, but it is important to remember that anxiety or depression is not who you are.”