Student faces ‘long road’ to overcoming mental illness
- Bert Nash Center, 200 Maine: Provides case management services for those with mental illness, 843-9192.
- Recovery and Hope Network, or RAHN, 1009 N.H., Suites C and D: Provides social and supportive services for those with a mental illness, 856-1222.
- Kansas University Disability Resources: Helps KU students with accommodations for a wide variety of disabilities, including mental illness, 864-2620.
- KU Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS): Provides counseling services to KU students, 864-2277.
- Headquarters Counseling Center: Operates a 24-hour crisis call center and provides referrals, 841-2345.
Caitie Hilton’s academic transcript at Kansas University, at first glance, doesn’t look very impressive.
Multiple withdrawals from classes, entire semesters missed and only two year’s worth of credits despite being at KU for five years since graduating from Lawrence High School.
But looked at from another perspective, Hilton’s academic progress is an inspirational story of a local woman who refuses let her mental illness keep her from success.
Beginning after the death of a close friend when Hilton was 15, she’s battled severe depression, facing multiple in-patient hospitalizations and periods when she couldn’t do much.
“It’s been a long road,” said Hilton, outside of Twente Hall on campus recently. Now 23, Hilton has been accepted into the KU School of Social Welfare. She said there have been times when “it took all my effort to get out of bed and go to school.”
Hilton is just one example of the many Lawrence residents who battle mental illness every day. And for each person struggling with a mental illness, measures of success vary. For Hilton, getting that KU degree and becoming a social worker would mean success.
For others, such as LaTonya Johnson, 55, it’s simply staying out of homeless shelters and remaining in a stable living situation. Three years ago, Johnson hit rock bottom after depression led her to homelessness.
“I didn’t want to do anything or be around people,” said Johnson, who describes her depression as a strong “heavy” feeling. “I was closed off for a long time.”
After being laid off from her job as a data entry operator, the Kansas City, Mo., native became homeless for the first time, bouncing around shelters in Kansas City before ending up in Lawrence. She spent eight months at the Lawrence Community Shelter, where social workers helped her access disability services and find local subsidized housing.
While Hilton has been receiving help for her illness for years, it took Johnson decades before she accepted help. Even then, it was a struggle.
“They had to pull it out of me,” said Johnson of her Bert Nash caseworkers when they asked about her psychological troubles.
Johnson is a member at the Recovery and Hope Network in Lawrence, where she participates in social activities with others who have a mental illness. In addition to medication and therapists, Johnson said that staying social is one of the tools she uses to stay stable.
“I’ve just found a better way to handle it,” said Johnson, who encourages others to seek help. “There is help available and it really does work.”
Staying busy and keeping her mind on her goal — graduation and possibly graduate school — is what keeps Hilton going. In recent years, she’s worked with other mental health advocates on several initiatives, including a push to increase crisis intervention training for police officers.
She’s received positive assistance from the KU community, she said. Despite her spotty academic record, Hilton said, “all of my professors or GTAs have been more than willing to work with me.”
Hilton receives services from KU’s Supportive Education Services, available to students from certain backgrounds, or those with a qualifying disability, including mental illness.
“KU has been awesome,” she said.
But before she got to KU, Hilton said, she faced low expectations and negative opinions from people who doubted whether someone with a severe mental illness could make it through college life.
“‘You shouldn’t be trying to go to college because you won’t make it through because of your mental illness,'” said Hilton, characterizing some of the comments she’d hear.
She has had to adjust her own expectations, but said she’s determined to graduate.
“I’ve come to accept that maybe I’m not going to graduate in four years,” she said. “The road that I take to graduate isn’t what most people do.”