Photos by David Paz
By Richie Zamora, New America Media
Cameron Brenner has been dealing with depression for most of his life.
Now 21, Brenner is the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at Pierce and is majoring in theatrical costuming. But the road to where he is today has been long and rocky.
“When I was a child they knew there was something off with my behavior but they weren’t sure what it was,” he says. “They didn’t want to label it.”
Severe mood swings, he says, were the first indication that something was wrong.
“I would get incredibly depressed and then incredibly happy or manic or violent, and they weren’t sure how to deal with it,” he says. “I was about seven when they started introducing medication.”
First he was prescribed medication for ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and then eventually Tegretol, a medication for mood stabilization. The medication got rid of his mood swings, Brenner says, but left him with an even and steady depression.
His depression worsened with being bullied.
“In middle school I had problems because I was bullied really badly,” he says. “I didn’t want to come out at the time because it wasn’t a safe place for me … The harassment got to unbearably bad levels, which did not help my depression.”
Eventually he brought his classmates’ actions to the attention of the school administration, which he says took the situation seriously and dealt with it, but the experience took a toll on him.
Around the time he entered high school, his medication became ineffective. “Suddenly the pills stopped working entirely,” he says. “I would have such radical, violent switches from happiness to anger, to aggression, to depression. I couldn’t turn to anyone at home because I was having issues with my father. He and I now get along great but we’d clash to the point that we’d fight each other physically or verbally.”
Brenner’s depression peaked at the age of 16 when he attempted suicide by hanging.
“I tied the bedsheets wrong, and it didn’t do anything but make my neck very red. I went to an institutional ward for two weeks, which [helped],” Brenner said. “[The attempt] was stupid and I was glad it failed.”
He was ultimately diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a condition that includes aspects of both schizophrenia and mood disorders like depression.
“You hear, you taste, you see things that don’t physically exist in the world, and that was doubled with my depression. So I’d be manic or incredibly depressed and a hallucination would appear,” Brenner says. “My depression was constantly [present]. I had a lot of auditory hallucinations, which caused me a lot of problems because I became paranoid.”
“It was personalities more than voices,” he continues. “Everyone is betraying you. This person’s a liar or they’re out to get you … [But] I have been medicated for it and it’s been working very well.” He feels more in control of himself, he says, and describes his relationship with his parents as much better. But it hasn’t been easy getting to that point.
In Brenner’s experience, there are a lot of people who see depression as simply being in a bad mood. They don’t realize that depression is a diagnosable and treatable condition. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mood disorders like depression are the third most common reason for hospitalization among youth and adults between the ages of 18 and 44.
“From what I’ve seen, [a lot of people] view depression as ‘Oh that person is just moody,’ or ‘They’re just trying to get attention,’” says Brenner.
Brenner keeps himself busy with his academic and GSA responsibilities on campus, but he also feels that flexing his creative muscles in writing and drawing helps with his depression. The act of creating gives him a feeling of control.
And just being able to talk with someone without worrying about embarrassment or being judged can go a long way to help, he says. But Brenner feels that people who need help often don’t seek it out because they fear being labeled, and then being perceived as damaged or dangerous.
“I think our culture has advanced to where people are a little more willing to talk to a therapist, but [there are still situations] where people who need treatment are refusing treatment because they think it’s going to condemn them in some way,” he says.
Support groups made up of individuals dealing with similar situations have been helpful, says Brenner. For him, talking with peers has been easier and less intimidating than one-on-one sessions with a therapist.
“I think support groups work. I’ve been to a couple and you know you’re not the only one suffering with these problems. There are other people that are with you,” Brenner says. “I think talking peer to peer can be very helpful and having a mediator there is [good] because it allows some professional insight as well. It’s important that the mediator has also been in that [particular] community because they can speak from a professional perspective and as well as an insider perspective.”
He also feels fortunate to have the support of his family.
“I have friends where that’s not been the case. Their [parents] scream and yell at them, ‘How are you gay? What did I do to deserve this?’ It’s this mixed-up idea of what being gay is.”