Zach Westerbeck, founder of Westerbeck Speaking and Coaching, surrounded his life around mental health discussions after his own experience with chronic anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder once he graduated from Purdue University in 2014.
Through his own work with a psychologist, Westerbeck promised himself that if he “got better” he would never let somebody “suffer in silence again.” This led to Westerbeck becoming Mental Health First Aid certified and writing his book set to release in October, “You’re Not Alone.”
The Red & Black talked with Westerbeck about symptoms to look for in peers, what resources are available to students and the stigma surrounding mental health for Suicide Prevention Month.
Red & Black: What signs should people look for to see if their friends need help?
Zach Westerbeck: So, I always like to simplify this piece because there are a lot of different signs and symptoms. The core symptoms that you want to look for in an individual from a depression and anxiety standpoint is number one — are they withdrawn? If they’re the type of person who’s very outgoing and all of a sudden they’re spending a lot of time in their room, this could be a sign somebody is dealing with the onset of anxiety or depression. Another big one is if people are sleeping too much or not at all. If you notice somebody gained a lot of weight or lost a lot of weight very quickly that’s another sign that somebody might be dealing with anxiety and depression. So, it’s really looking for those physical symptoms and then the behavior — so withdrawing, sleeping too much or too little, weight gain or weight loss and then crying spells. If you have a friend that every single time you get drunk, they start crying, that might be a sign that they’ve been suppressing emotions around you. Those are the core four that I would point out.
R&B: In your workshops and book, you tell students to utilize resources available to them like the university counseling and psychiatric services, but there are issues with long waiting periods for appointments. What do you think students who don’t necessarily have immediate access to therapy or medication, for one reason or another, can do to help themselves in the meantime?
ZW: I’m going to reference an acronym that actually comes from the Mental Health First Aid certification and that’s A.L.G.E.E. The last E is basically telling an individual who’s communicating with somebody in crisis to encourage them to seek other self-help materials. So, the number one thing I want to say is, CAPS tends to take students who are in crisis. If you are someone who’s in crisis, they’ll move you to the front of the line if they determine that you’re in immediate need. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. So, that’s a free resource that people can tap into at any given moment, or you can text that hotline as well. There are a couple different things, [like] self-help material and that can start with a simple reading of an article online. That can start with picking up any book, but for example “You’re Not Alone,” which has all of the self-help material inside of it and the step-by-step process to seek help. You can go to PsychologyToday.com and put in the zip code where you live, and it will populate a list of behavioral health care providers that are in the surrounding area. If you still want to see somebody and maybe you’re even looking to see somebody more on a long term basis, that’s actually the route I would recommend because the CAPS center really focuses on seeing people in the short-term. Another service a lot of universities offer is education services from certified college students who can have high level mental health conversations with their peers. They have the ability to talk with another individual about the emotions they’re experiencing. They can’t diagnose you, a licensed professional has to do that, but that can be the start of a conversation. Another really popular option is Talkspace. [It’s] a virtual platform that allows you to connect with different mental health care providers around the country and you can talk to them via text or video. They have different rates for that, so it’s not free, but they have college programs that make it more affordable for college students.
R&B: While the conversations around mental health are becoming less stigmatized, there’s still some hesitation to talk about mental health with peers. How do you think students can combat that?
ZW: I think that’s kind of why I started doing the work that I do. It starts with education. It’s very natural at a societal level for us to tend to have a negative perspective on what it means to have mental health and that’s because of the messaging we’ve received from day one since we’ve grown up. We see it in the media. We see it in the movies we watch. We see it in the conversations that we have, and we see it in the general behavior of the other human beings around us. It’s not in our nature to open up about the emotions we’re feeling and so it really gives the opportunity for stigma to form around mental health and for us to believe that feeling depression, feeling anxiety is a sign of maybe lack of moral character or a character flaw, when in reality depression and anxiety are medical conditions just like diabetes and cancer. So, it starts by understanding, changing that perspective and understanding this isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s you experiencing having a medical reaction to outside factors. We want to think about your genetics, the daily life stresses you go through and then significant life events. Those are the three core areas that are going to impact people’s mental health over the course of their lifetime. The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] estimates that 50% of Americans over the age of 18 are going to experience some form of [mental illness] and so we all need to understand that we’re prone to this because we all have brains, and our brains respond to different stimuli in a different way but it’s always a medical condition.
R&B: There’s more of a stigma specifically surrounding men’s mental health. What are the difficulties that come with that and how do you think people can combat the stigma around men’s mental health specifically?
ZW: It gets back to the education piece, and it really gets down to breaking down the walls of vulnerability. So from a very young age, men are taught directly or indirectly to not show emotion. To kind of suppress some of those, maybe softer emotions, you know — hey, I'm sad or I’m upset. You don’t hear many men talking like that. Where we begin to break down those barriers is through meaningful dialogue. So, getting a group of men in a small group to start to express the different ways they feel, the different things they’ve gone through. What’s incredible about that is that once one person is vulnerable and everybody else sees that vulnerability work in real time, other people feel comfortable being vulnerable as well. What they end up discovering is that they became closer with their friends, because now they know something more intimate and deeper about them that they didn’t know before, because they’d always kept it at surface level. So, whether it’s smashing the stigma or getting more men to talk about their mental health, it all begins with meaningful dialogue and education to support that meaningful dialogue.
Q&A has been edited for length and clarity