For the first three years of her pharmacy degree, Sydney Saunders was a happy, energetic student leader.
But in her fourth year, something changed. She became down — irritable and fatigued. She was having trouble concentrating, was skipping meals and no longer felt joy from things she normally loved.
“I got my acceptance letter to complete a clinical rotation at the University of Pittsburgh and was being offered interviews for residency programs across the country,” she said.
“Why was I not over the moon? It’s easy to put on a façade — I smiled on the outside, but inside I felt empty. No joy, no interest, no enthusiasm. Just nothing.”
The brain is an organ just like any other
Despite a significant increase in mental health awareness, stigma surrounding mental illnesses still exists.
Because of this, Ms. Saunders says she felt embarrassed and ashamed to admit both to herself and her loved ones that she was depressed.
It may have been happenstance that her battle with depression coincided with her Pharmacy 5401: Therapeutics III (Major Depressive Disorder) course with Dr. Leslie Phillips.
The course helped Ms. Saunders learn more about depression and realize that the brain is an organ just like any other organ in the body and sometimes things go wrong with it, and that mental illnesses are no different from diabetes and asthma.
“Dr. Phillips told us, ‘Depression is common, under-treated and it’s a killer — a black hole that sucks up all your hopes and ambitions and replaces them with emptiness,'” said Ms. Saunders.
“We discussed barriers to treatment, such as the stigma surrounding mental health, and she encouraged us not to shy away from talking about mental illness with our patients. Through her lectures, Dr. Phillips made me feel like I was normal and that it was okay to not be okay.”
Navigating the drug path
Ms. Saunders’ symptoms worsened over a period of about six months. She says she kept making excuses: it was just stress or a bad day. The bad days stretched into bad months.
“I began to wonder if anyone would miss me, and that’s when I realized I needed help,” she said. “It just so happened that I began the mental health block of my therapeutics course at the same time as I started my antidepressant. ”
The timing was a lucky coincidence, as taking antidepressants can be a tough road, especially for the first couple of weeks.
“When starting an antidepressant, things often get worse before they get better.”
Ms. Saunders says had she not learned in the course that the initial negative effects are short term and would improve with time, she may have been tempted to stop her treatment.
“When starting an antidepressant, things often get worse before they get better,” she explained.
“The adverse effects come when a patient starts the medication, but it takes time for the beneficial effects, such as improved sleep, appetite, energy and mood. For my first week of treatment, I was only sleeping for a couple of hours a night and I was constantly nauseous. As much as I wanted to stop taking the medication, I knew it would get better.”
When treating a depressive episode, it takes at least 6-9 months of being on medications to resolve a patient’s symptoms. Typically, a patient would be in therapy for at least one year. Recurrence is also common in depression.
Find the kind
Another vital message to those suffering with mental illness is how important it is to seek support.
Ms. Saunders urges those who are struggling not to give up. She says too many people suffer in silence and that there are always people who care and who are willing to help, despite some of the negative encounters one may have when reaching out.
“I am proud to be a part of a profession that is easily accessible for patients with mental illness. Pharmacists are well equipped to counsel patients on their medications and help them manage adverse effects.”
During a recent practice rotation, Ms. Saunders had the opportunity to interact with a patient and could sense something was off.
“I am thankful that my personal experiences with mental illness have made me more compassionate and understanding.”
Because of her training and personal experience, she was able to start a conversation with the patient about the struggles in her life, her relationships and her history of self-harm and suicide attempts.
“I was taken aback by her story and we both became teary-eyed and emotional,” Ms. Saunders recalled.
“She left that day with an antidepressant, a plan to follow up and a new advocate. This whole journey has inspired me. Now that I am happy and well, I am thankful that my personal experiences with mental illness have made me more compassionate and understanding of what others are going through.”
Sydney Saunders is from Florenceville, N.B. She will cross the stage at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre during spring convocation on June 1.