When Miguel Campos began his ISyE graduate studies in August 2018, he expected the experience to be exciting and challenging — particularly because, as an international student from Colombia, he was coming to the U.S. for the first time.
Describing himself as “a usually happy person,” he didn’t anticipate one of those challenges being his mental health. When the fall semester began, Campos plunged into his studies.
As anticipated, they were demanding. Then he began noticing that he was having memory issues. He booked an appointment at Georgia Tech’s Counseling Center, which offers free mental health counseling and resources to students. But before his first session, Campos began suffering from both fatigue and sleeplessness, an inability to focus and a lack of appetite. He eventually saw a counselor who recommended group therapy, meditation, and exercise. While he followed her advice, his mental state didn’t improve.
The First Diagnosis
Then, a few months later, the situation became dire. “I was in China working on a research project, and I had a really bad episode,” Campos remembered. “I just couldn’t take it anymore.” He ended up being taken to a hospital in Hong Kong, and a few days later, Campos was back in Atlanta, still struggling. That was when ISyE Director of Student Services Dawn Strickland got involved.
“Because of what happened in China, because it was part of my studies, the incident was reported to her, and she asked me to come see her,” Campos said.
Strickland made a phone call to Stamps Health Services and was able to get Campos an appointment with the psychiatrist for two days later. “The doctor listened to me for 10 minutes, told me I was chronically depressed, and that she was prescribing an antidepressant,” he said. “That was the end of November. A month later I was fine.”
As the spring semester began, Campos found himself feeling happy and appreciating life. His Ph.D. studies were going well. Everything else in his life was too. A couple of months later, Campos felt energized. Sleep was less of a necessity. He noticed a change in his spending habits, parting with money recklessly. While his girlfriend, friends, and professors all noticed Campos’ increasingly bizarre behavior, they weren’t sure what was going on.
The Second Diagnosis
Campos was in China once again for an ISyE project when he had another major mental health incident — this time, a psychotic break characterized by delusions and a partial loss of his connection with reality. He was hospitalized for 13 days in Hong Kong before his family flew him back to Bogotá, where he was hospitalized for 15 more days.
There, a psychiatrist finally recognized an error. Campos, they said, had been misdiagnosed with depression. Instead, it was much more likely that it was bipolar disorder. The antidepressant he was on was contributing to Campos’ mania, a common occurrence when bipolar disorder is incorrectly treated.
Americans are typically familiar with depression and anxiety as common mental health issues. They may be less familiar with bipolar disorder, except for depictions in movies or TV that show a character experiencing wildly elevated moods (mania) or debilitating low moods (depression). These are indeed characteristics of the disorder, but a range of symptoms accompany it.
Around 5.7 million Americans are affected by the condition. In 2019, the World Health Organization estimated that globally 970 million people, or 1 person out of 8, suffered from a mental health condition. This included 40 million with bipolar disorder.
It was a relief for Campos to finally have the correct diagnosis and to be prescribed the right medication for it, although he had to pause his studies for a full year as part of the process. “I have a very good specialist back home, and he got me on the right medication,” he said. “I’ve had mild episodes since, like hypomania, but I treat them with medication.” His psychiatrist also encouraged him to stop eating sugar, which can artificially heighten the highs and lows of mood swings.
He has a sanguine outlook on his diagnosis and everything that happened to him leading up to it. “So, it’s a chronic disease,” he said. “This is what happened to me.”
Sharing His Story
This perspective has led Campos to openly share his story with fellow Georgia Tech students.
In that crucial conversation he had with Strickland, she told him she had similarly grappled with mental health issues while studying for her ISyE doctorate. She mentioned that she knew of numerous other ISyE students who felt isolated with their mental health challenges.
Once Campos’ moods stabilized and he was back in school, he and several other students began considering how to share their personal mental health stories as a way of providing information to and connection for the rest of the ISyE graduate students.
“Our initial idea was to do an information session for first-year ISyE Ph.D. students,” he said. “They have a mandatory seminar they have to attend every week, so we attended one of those sessions as an initial point of contact.” Then they developed a broader event and invited all doctoral students and faculty.
That created an opportunity to discuss the mental health resources provided by the Institute. “We also shared our own stories, so everyone would know mental health issues are normal, they need to be discussed, and they’re nothing to be ashamed of,” he said. Over 50 people attended the event.
Creating the ISyE Bee Well Group
In addition to presenting to the ISyE Ph.D. community, Campos and some members of the School’s Graduate Student Advisory Council put together the Bee Well Group in Spring 2022. Strickland and Graduate Programs Manager Amanda Ford, who had also recognized the need for such a group, serve as its advisors.
“The group came about partly because of my own experience as a grad student, as well as seeing how some of our students struggle,” Strickland said. In the spring, the group met occasionally for breakfast, inviting any students who needed support to attend.
They also organized a few walks around campus as a way of highlighting how important physical activity is for mental health. Campos and the other leaders plan to expand the Bee Well group activities in the fall.
In the meantime, several students have reached out to them to affirm their interest in the group and to share their own personal struggles. Campos sees this as a success. “The idea of the group is that when they hear our stories, they will know they can make it through this,” Campos said. “I’m in my fourth year already, and I got sick in my first semester. So, it’s going to work out, but you would never believe that if it wasn’t coming from someone who has been there already.
“Every time I talk to someone about this, I tell them it’s an illness. It’s like you have diabetes. And I ask if they would apologize for having diabetes or try to hide it.
Diabetes is a chronic disease, you will have it all your life, and you need to take your medication because if you don’t, you'll get sick. It's the same exact thing with mental health.”
For More Information Contact
If you are a Georgia Tech student and need mental health support and assistance, please visit the CARE homepage. For information about the ISyE Bee Well Group, contact Dawn Strickland and Amanda Ford.