But things didn’t go as planned as she found herself battling depression. “During the worst months I had days of non-stop crying, but staying at home wasn’t an option. To play hockey for example, I would put my mask on and cycle to practice. My teammates would ask me: ‘Sophie, you’ve got bags under your eyes! Hit the bottle last night? I would reply with a quip: ‘Yeah, I really had a crazy night.’ But once I got home it was right back to blubbering, and nobody had a clue.”
When she would later tell her friends about this, she discovered she wasn’t the only one in this situation. “People had similar stories. Or they would ask me for advice for their acquaintances. It’s really so stupid that we look at this as something to be ashamed of. That makes people reluctant to talk about it. More awareness and a willingness to discuss depression would have really helped me.” She decided to something about it herself, and that’s how she came up with ‘Maskerclasses’ (Mask classes).
Revealing our vulnerabilities
Now, a year after her bout with depression, she looks happy and energetic in her ‘sitting room’ at Locus Publicus, just around the corner from where she lives. She speaks with conviction. She completed her master’s programme – a little later than planned – and instead of a full-time consultancy job, she works part-time at a start-up. She’s also working on her ‘new mission’, her Mask Class. Her voice still has the hint of a rasp, a remnant of her time as a student when she spent a lot of time ‘at the pub’ with her friends.
During Sophie’s Mask Classes, she takes to the stage in darkened student association pubs reeking of stale beer to talk about depression. During her sessions, a permanent fixture next to her is a panel of hands-on experts to widen the scope of the issue beyond Sophie’s own story. “By opening up about it, I hope I can break the taboo around the issue, and the experts can help create more awareness about depression. I’m doing this because I want to help people who are either in the same boat or know someone going through depression.”
Hitting the wall
The first evening was in May 2018 at Laurentius, the student association where she had been a member for six years and served on the board. To her surprise, the room was packed with students from Rotterdam. “It was terrifying. Personal stories about feeling vulnerable are not par for the course at these associations. But in the conversations I’ve had, I’ve noticed that it’s something that’s on people’s minds. Everyone knows someone either from their student club, house or student society who ended up hitting the wall.
“University administrators are concerned about the welfare of their students, but they don’t know where to start. The numbers support Sophie’s perspective on the issue: in the age group between 10 and 30, 276 deaths can be attributed to suicide. This cause of death is more common than cancer, cardiovascular diseases or traffic accidents. According to a 113 suicide prevention line employee, 1 in 10 people have thoughts of suicide.”
For Sophie, it all began when she commenced with the master’s in Quantitative Logistics and Operations Research. “A master’s programme is a year of gritting your teeth and keeping at it. We all know that. But we also think that’s the way it’s meant to be.” Her calendar is packed that year. “I wanted to do it all: go for a run every morning to compensate for all the time I spent sitting at board meetings, get good grades, spend entire days in the University Library, be productive, stick to a healthy diet and regularly meet up with friends, which inevitably meant having a few drinks.
She manages to do this for five months. “It can’t all be done in a single day, so I wasn’t able to do everything the way I wanted to, and I would often fall asleep feeling dissatisfied.” Exams are looming in February during the first year of her master’s programme. “By then, I’d already been feeling like I had run out of gas for a few weeks. I had no energy to do anything. I said to my classmates: I can’t put my finger on it, but I’m just not going to take those exams. Even though I was always the one who was studying in the University Library three weeks before exams.”
February in bed
Sophie spends all of February mostly lying in bed. “I don’t really remember what happened during those days. I decided to postpone my thesis and look for a mindless job: earn a bit of money and go on a nice holiday.” In the meantime, her social life and drinking (‘in the weekends, at least’) continued. One drunken evening in April, she had just pulled the door shut behind her at her student lodgings at Oostzeedijk when someone knocked on the door. Sophie opened the door, thinking it was a friend, but it turned out to be just the opposite. “This old guy saw a window of opportunity and sexually assaulted me on my own doorstep.”
That was the last straw. “After that things got worse. I had panic attacks and was afraid to go outside. I wasn’t about to go running anymore, because I thought the tight leggings were too revealing.” A few weeks after the sexual assault, she reached out for help and ended up seeing a psychologist. But the darkest months, literally and figuratively, were still to come a half-year later in November, December, and January. “It was like everything I looked at was a few shades darker. I started questioning my purpose on this earth. Would it always be like this? Would people miss me if I was gone? I felt so sad on the inside that I couldn’t see my intrinsic value anymore.”
Removing the mask
Finally, after more than a year, the help she received enabled her to slowly get back on her feet. She learned a thing or two from that dark time. “It’s worrying how good you can be at hiding your problems from your family, good friends and hockey team. People you see multiple times every week. Partly out of shame, but also because your contact with others is so fleeting when you’re a student.
What role does shame play? Sophie feels we live in a culture where it’s not considered normal to reveal your vulnerabilities. On the one hand it’s admitting to yourself that something isn’t going the way you want it to: “It was fucking terrifying for me to admit I’d failed and then look for help by going to a psychologist. I always felt I was capable of solving my own problems.”
On the other hand there’s a sense of shame of revealing your vulnerability to the outside world. “Thanks to social media, we’re always switched on and we want to perform non-stop. That’s so exhausting. On top of that, we emulate each other on Instagram by projecting a perfect life without any flaws. That sets the bar very high.”
She also notices it when organising the evening sessions. She always tries to get someone with ‘first-hand’ experience with depression to sit on her panel. “There’s no lack of people struggling with depression, but they’re usually not willing to come up on stage with me. They’re afraid of what people will say, or they don’t want to be seen as crazy or as that guy or girl with problems.” Does that worry Sophie? “I’m not afraid to be an object of discussion when it comes to depression. If it helps other people, so be it.”
Sophie also feels that mental health issues don’t always get the attention they deserve. “Look at EUR. On our first day as students, we’re given detailed information on the computer systems. They practically click the mouse for us to show us where we can find our grades and where we can enrol for courses. But during orientation, no one mentions where we can find the university psychologist. I didn’t even know that existed.”
During her sessions with the psychologist, Sophie came to the realisation that she wanted a more mindful approach to life. “Fewer and fewer young people are interested in religion. The generation before us was raised in a Christian environment. Before eating, you said grace and expressed your gratitude by reflecting on the things you’re grateful for or things you wanted to do better. Most of our generation, me included, no longer does that, so we miss out on the things that really matter. I didn’t even know the word ‘gratitude’.
She emphasises that everyone experiences depression in their own way and it’s not something that’s resolved by flipping a few switches. What helped Sophie was being more mindful of the idea of gratitude. The psychologist guided me get to that point step by step. One of the things she recommended was taking a picture every day of something I was grateful for. This made me more mindful, as it forced me to find a spark of gratitude every day, even during my darkest hours.”
Sophie isn’t finished with the Mask Classes yet, and she is meeting with a number of student associations. What’s next, after she’s visited all the associations? “I’m considering organising evening sessions for the business community. It also has its share of problems when it comes to this issue.”
Are you having thoughts of suicide? Please contact the 113 Suicide Prevention Line at 0900 0113 and www.113.nl.