Student struggles illuminated at mental health vigil


(Illustration by Abby Katz | Staff Illustrator)

After sustaining a concussion playing street basketball during his junior year of high school, Wyatt Macejka’s life would never be the same.

The senior psychology major was diagnosed with depression and anxiety as a result of the concussion, and he struggled through his recovery.

“I couldn’t leave my room, I wasn’t able to go to classes, wasn’t able to go to school, just locked in a dark room for 24 hours of the day,” Macejka said. “So I was alone with my thoughts and nothing else.”

Macejka was one of five students who spoke at the Mental Health Vigil Friday on the patio of the William Pitt Union. Attended by about 40 people, the event was organized by Student Government Board and gave students grappling with mental illness a chance to share their experiences.

Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner gave the opening remarks at the event, mentioning how he has a degree in counseling and spent his graduate years aiding students.

“I was working with students and helping them through a lot of the things they were experiencing in college, and while I believe I was a pretty effective counselor at the time, I really wanted to work in administration because I thought that my role in administration would allow me to try to effect a change in the entire environment,” Bonner said.

Bonner went on to discuss the “Talk About It” campaign intended to help reduce the stigma of mental illness, and how it turned into something bigger than the University could’ve imagined when the idea was first conceived 10 years ago.

“That’s not to say that we’re done, there’s a lot of work to be done,” Bonner said. “We believe at Pitt that we have been committed to this, but we know that we need to continue to stay on it. This work — this is unceasing, unending work.”

Macejka’s own journey has been long and wrought with obstacles. He said his situation did not improve when he first arrived at Pitt — thoughts of suicide still plagued him, and worrying kept him up at night.

“On weekends I would try to forget about everything that was happening,” Macejka said. “And then trying to forget turned into more problems and those problems turned into bigger problems and those problems turned into walks at 2 a.m. at night that ended up at bridges in Schenley Park.”

He said he’d bring a pocket knife with him when he went out to the bridge, and one time he “had the pocket knife out.”

“I’d never really gotten to that point before and it really hit me — I have two roads to go down, I either end it here or I gotta get better but I can’t keep doing this. It took about another hour just sitting there staring to finally make up my mind about what I was going to do. And so I dropped that knife off the bridge that night,” Macejka said.

Macejka went on to make friends with people who would talk with him about his depression and go out of their way to make him feel better. He eventually sought therapy and also found help when he got involved with Phi Gamma Delta.

“And those 2 a.m. walks that used to end at the bridge, would end at a friend’s house, would end at a brother’s house. And I truly believe, I know that those talks I had with those individuals who let me come saved my life,” Macejka said.

Emily Amspacher, a sophomore nursing student who has severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, was another student who spoke at Friday’s vigil. She began by addressing the stigma those with mental health issues and advocates deal with.

“People like to pretend that we aren’t here or we aren’t valid,” Amspacher said. “And I just wanna let you all know that you are valid.”

OCD is a disorder characterized by unwanted intrusive thoughts, known as obsessions, that can be accompanied by unwanted habitual behaviors, known as compulsions. Amspacher said she suffered from the illness — which was triggered by her brother’s death when she was 10 years old — long before her diagnosis seven months ago.

“It is not the stereotypical OCD that everybody passed around as if it is some treasure to have. It is not the everyday neat organized individual that is just around all the time. It is a debilitating obsessive fear that grips at your heart and tears at your lungs,” Amspacher said.

Amspacher has “pure O,” which means she internalizes her obsessions and does not express them. She found an escape in books, she said, adding that mindfulness and the diagnosis helped.

“And actually having a diagnosis from what was going on was the best thing that has ever happened in my life,” Amspacher said. “I felt so much better just knowing that something made me the way that I was.”

Madison Shaftic — a senior psychology major and second-time Mental Health Vigil speaker — discussed her struggle with major depressive disorder along with persistent depression and generalized anxiety disorder. She talked about how a person close to her refuses to believe she has depression.

“[They] have told me that ‘I’m so sick about hearing about your mental illness … you have nothing to be depressed about. I have everything to be depressed about. Get a grip,’” Shaftic said.

Ilana Kornblatt, a sociology and urban studies double major, attended the event to support her friends Shaftic and Bridgette Serrechia, another speaker at the event. She said it is important that mental health awareness continues to increase.

“I think that as long as the events are catering to students groups or different individual students then I would consider that a success,” Kornblatt said.

Amspacher has seen her own success — she said she improved because she took the first step and reached out to other people for help.

“In the words of one of my professors who also has OCD, ‘Everybody has their own [problems] and you kinda just have to deal with it,’” Amspacher said. “And no matter what life gives you, you just have to fight back, do better. You can succeed.”