Playing through the pain

Garrett Suderman, a setter on the Niagara College volleyball team, has dealt with mental health issues since middle school. PHOTO BY HUGO GARCIA-GONZALEZ
Garrett Suderman, a setter on the Niagara College volleyball team, has dealt with mental health issues since middle school. PHOTO BY HUGO GARCIA-GONZALEZ

Staff Writer

You feel like you’ve seen him on campus before.

Maybe you saw him in the Learning Commons. Maybe you saw him in the classroom. Maybe you just happened to pass in the hallway.

Maybe you saw him on the volleyball court, playing for the Knights.

That’s it; that’s probably where you saw him.

He does, after all, have the look of someone who belongs there. The tall, lithe, blonde looks like an athlete.

You wouldn’t have bet the farm on volleyball, but it fits.

You can tell a lot about people just looking at them, and looking at Garrett Suderman that’s what you take away.

The thing is people are more than just their outward projections, and Garrett is no exception.

Garrett is part of the 65 per cent of Ontario college and university students who felt overwhelming anxiety in the last year.

Garrett is part of the 46 per cent of Ontario college and university students who felt so depressed it affected their functioning in the last year.

You couldn’t tell that from looking.

* * *

Linda and Henry Suderman raised their family in a small town called Niverville, Man., about 20 minutes south of the Winnipeg perimeter.
They had four children: a girl and three boys. Kristen, 30, is the oldest. Jared is 27 and Daniel is 24. Garrett, at 20 years old, is the youngest in the family.

Mental health became an issue for Garrett at an early age. It was in Grade 4 when Garrett was first bullied. Sometime around Grade 5 or Grade 6, it escalated and that’s when it started to take a toll.

“I was a target of really heavy bullying because I was overweight at that age,” says Garrett.

Unsurprisingly, the bullying made it difficult to make friends and began to affect his mood.

“It was a case of when I went to school, I wasn’t sure who was my friend that day.”

That’s where it all started.

A decade later, his mental health is still affected.

* * *

To speak to Garrett today, you aren’t left with the sense that this is a man who has struggled with depression for a decade and generalized anxiety disorder for five years.

What most people don’t understand, but what Garrett is acutely aware of, is the fact that depression doesn’t really go away – at least, not the way a cold or the flu goes away.

It’s a complex condition with a lot of variables. More than just serotonin or dopamine levels, depression is just as much about thought patterns and internal monologues as it is anything else.

Last February, Garrett sought out a diagnosis for the first time.

“I had a strong idea what was wrong in Grade 5 or 6. I just didn’t feel the need (for a diagnosis). It didn’t feel like it was bad enough that I needed help.”

That is the truly insidious part of depression. It comes on slowly, almost imperceptibly, and simply recognizing something is off is often times difficult.

Garrett noticed his moods were beginning to have a tangible impact on others; that’s what made him reach out to a doctor.

“For the first eight or nine years of struggling with it, it was pretty much completely internalized. I didn’t really open up about it to anybody. If I spent the whole day in bed, it didn’t really affect anybody else.”

He had been getting more irritable and started arguing with his friends.

Suddenly, his private problem was affecting others.

“I figured it’s not fair to my friends if something I can change about myself, that I can work on, is hurting my relationships.”

It’s been a multifaceted approach to dealing with depression that has helped Garrett improve.

The first antidepressant he tried worked wonderfully, except for the fact he couldn’t sleep. The second antidepressant he tried didn’t work at all. The third antidepressant finally managed to strike a balance between efficacy and side effects.

His doctor also recommended things beyond medication Garrett could do to improve his condition. Meditation, journal writing and a mood log are the three he credits most today for his improvement.

Writing, in particular, is an outlet Garrett has found particularly useful.

When asked about whether he wants friends and family to know he’s struggling or whether he wants to keep it to himself he smiles as he considers his answer.

“I write a blog that’s a self-named blog. I’ve pretty much made everything public about myself public on there,” says Garrett.

It isn’t something everyone is open to, and Garrett doesn’t like to jump right in with people he’s just met.

“Even with meeting new people it’s pretty tough because you don’t want to open up your can of worms right off the bat and let them know everything that’s personal about you.”

The problem, he says, is he advertises his blog pretty heavily on his social media, so new friends find out pretty quickly what’s going on. It creates mixed reactions, something he understands.

“If they’re not telling you all of their problems, why are you telling them all of yours? It’s just a really hard balance to find.”

* * *

Depression affects us all.

Young, old, tall, short, rich or poor, depression can affect anyone.

Statistically, there are thousands of students at Niagara College going through struggles very similar to Garrett’s.

His advice to them? Look for help everywhere.

“It’s going to look different for each individual, what helps them.”

Some of his friends benefit from psychologists and counsellors, but the important thing to Garrett is to find what works for the individual.

And although tempting to shut down socially, he says it’s a temporary solution.

“It might feel better that day to stay in bed than to go see a doctor or go see a counsellor or go talk to your friend about it, but in the long run, if you want anything to change, you have to be the person to do something about it.”

Take it day by day and things will get better.

“One day I’ll feel really great and I’ll get out and get a bunch done. Some days getting out of bed is really tough in itself.”

* * *

Garrett moved to Niagara at 18, studied business at Niagara College for two years and is currently in the first year of the Child and Youth Care program.

Like most people his age, he isn’t 100 per cent sure what he wants to do with his life.

His aim right now is to become a high-school counsellor and he hopes to make a difference for others.

“I believe at some point I want to be a counsellor,” he says. “I have a goal of making a career in a field where I work with mental health.”

He is probably the perfect candidate.

“Know your enemy,” as the saying goes.