Peer To Peer
On Aug. 26, 2013, Diane Orley got a knock on her door that she says changed her life and who she is forever.
“My son had committed suicide,” she said.
Orley related her personal tragedy to a crowd of about 250 people who had gathered at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham Feb. 5 to learn about a new University of Michigan peer-to-peer support network that helps students suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
The fundraising event was sponsored by the George Orley Mental Wellness Initiative, started in his memory.
George A. Orley, 20, a U-M rising junior, was a loving son, a caring brother, an accomplished athlete, a devoted friend, a natural leader, a strong advocate for those less fortunate and a passionate supporter of Detroit. He also struggled with depression and bipolar disorder.
“The hopelessness and helplessness that accompanies depression and bipolar disorder had gotten to him,” Orley said.
George also had type 1 diabetes.
“This disease is socially accepted and actually became a bonding experience with other kids and families that dealt with the disease,” she said. “It was a much different experience than the way we talked about — or didn’t talk about — his mental health issues.
“George went to U-M and, in the first semester of freshman year, his troubles began. He struggled, but very quietly,” Orley said. “Not until that spring did he share with us that he had tried to take his life during first semester.
“Going to college is a huge transition. You’re growing up, meeting new people, living on your own, learning to deal with a different workload, eating habits, exercise routine. You have to constantly be the best possible version of yourself at all times. All of us know that this pressure is way too much to go through alone.”
With psychiatric help and medicine, George found a way of living with mental illness.
“The constant worry, counting of pills behind his back, trying to get his friends to watch over him — it was all an enormous worry for us and our family,” Orley said.
“In the aftermath of losing my son, I am determined to find something positive and make a difference for kids who suffer as George did. With amazing energy and dedication to the same mission, Linda Aikens and I set out to do what we could in Ann Arbor, helping the daily life struggles that are so common at college age.”
Wolverine Support Network
That night at the Townsend was the culmination of a synergistic meeting between Orley, her close friend Aikens and U-M Student Body President Bobby Dishell, who was moved by George’s death.
“George knew so many people; his death affected campus,” said Dishell, a senior from Los Angeles. “He was that kind of guy. There was widespread sadness.”
After running in 2013 on a platform that stressed the need to address mental health on campus, Dishell and a handful of other students launched the Wolverine Support Network this winter.
Loosely based on a peer program at Harvard-Westlake High School in Los Angeles, WSN engages more than 200 students in 23 peer groups that meet across campus to support each other’s mental well-being. Each session is led by two or more trained WSN volunteers. Every other Friday, the groups come together for a stress-busting activity.
Wolverine Support Network is a registered student group. Training was organized and facilitated by students with support from various campus services and organizations involved in wellness.
WSN conducted a campus poll and learned that one in five students had sought professional help for their struggles, but only one in three continued that care.
“I battle with depression and have for most of my life,” Dishell said. “First we turn to friends, so why not be able to get help from other students.”
Orley said, “In the U.S., suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students; 67 percent of college students who are feeling suicidal tell a friend before anyone else. This peer-to-peer connection is so important. It is often the first line of defense.”
WSN leader Max Rothman, a freshman from Los Angeles, attended Harvard-Westlake High School and participated in its peer support program.
“I lost my friend, Julia, in eighth grade,” he said. “I had never experienced death before. The first time I talked about it was in a peer group. It changed my life forever. Everyone has issues; the peer groups help take the stigma away.”
Cooper Charlton, a junior from Cleveland, is a WSN director and a varsity athlete in lacrosse. After surgery during his freshman year kept him from sports for a while, he said his depression reappeared.
“It took me a while to realize that what it means to be strong means being able to ask for help,” he said. “Strength isn’t doing it alone.”
The three WSN leaders fielded questions from the audience, stressing that they plan to expand the program at U-M and take it to other college campuses. For example, U-M orientation leaders now will talk about the program to incoming freshman.
Many in the crowd spoke of mental health issues of their own or in their families.
“By raising awareness and reducing the stigma of mental illness, we all can save lives,” said Orley, who was accompanied by her son, Sam, husband, Randy, and other family members. “The numbers of kids suffering are staggering. I’m determined to make a difference in the mental health world — shattering the stigma and starting the important conversation.”
By Keri Guten Cohen, Story Development Editor