Learning to live with an invisible disability

Hunter Searle is a BYU student who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after returning home early from his LDS mission. After learning how to manage his own mental health, he now volunteers with Delta Alpha Pi, the BYU honor society for students with disabilities. (Hunter Searle)

Hunter Searle started having problems with his emotional and mental health while serving an LDS mission in San Fernando, California. He came home from his mission after serving for 14 months so he could take care of his health.

Hunter’s older brother, Zach Searle, was on a mission in Pennsylvania at the time. He remembers getting a call telling him Hunter’s mental health was bad enough he was coming home. Zach said he was shocked because he had never really known Hunter as an emotional person.

“I was just glad that he was home with my parents and that they were going to start treatment right away and really focus on getting him better,” Zach said.

After coming home, Hunter was diagnosed with type II bipolar disorder, or bipolar depression. This means he deals with anxiety and long periods of depression.

The time right after coming home was hard for Hunter. He was dealing with the social stigma of coming home early, as well as personal feelings of failure because he didn’t finish his mission, he said.

“I kind of had to work through that and overcome those feelings of guilt and failure before I could move on with my life,” Hunter said.

While Hunter was dealing with coming home early, he was also dealing with the effects of his disability.

“I was just worried about myself a lot. … It took me awhile to get to a point where I was secure enough and confident in myself so that when I have suicidal thoughts I can just brush them off and continue with my life,” Hunter said.

Disability Awareness Week on the BYU campus is Oct. 23-27. The University Accessibility Center has planned activities throughout the week to help students become more aware of BYU students who are living with disabilities and to learn how they can help.

Hunter said he has not let his mental disability hold him back.

He works with the University Accessibility Center, which helps him openly communicate with his teachers about his disability. As teachers are more aware, they can work with him when he does have days or weeks where he is struggling.

“The goal is not to just make class super easy for us (students with disabilities). The goal is to open up a discussion between the student and the professor about how they can help them succeed in the class while keeping the class fair,” Hunter said.

Hunter said sometimes it’s hard to be able to motivate himself to put in the work on assignments when he is dealing with depression. When he is anxious, he said it’s hard to focus and take tests.

“It would be really easy to let this be kind of like the end of everything but … I feel like he’s taken it into his own hands to make sure that things are good and that he is not really coping, but living with this mental illness,” Zach said.

Students at a DAP activity learn how to practice mindful meditation in 2016. Hunter Searle is currently the vice president of DAP and helps plan activities to help disabled BYU students. (Brenna Colby)

Hunter uses his challenges as an opportunity to help others around him. Hunter is the vice president of the BYU chapter of Delta Alpha Pi, or DAP, an honor society for students with disabilities.

Most of the students involved in DAP are dealing with mental disabilities, rather than physical disabilities, according to Hunter. They meet once a month for activities to help them connect with others with similar challenges and learn about available resources.

“He’s really dependable. He has a lot of good ideas for when we’re trying to figure out what we want to do, and he just follows through. He’s great. I was very happy when he decided to apply to be an officer this year,” said DAP advisor Valerie Shewfelt.

Shewfelt has been working with students in DAP for about two years. She said when she first started working with students with disabilities, she learned a lot about students with mental and emotional illnesses.

“When I thought of students with disabilities I thought physical (disabilities). I didn’t even think of hidden disabilities. I was nervous on how to interact. You don’t want to embarrass them, you don’t want to embarrass yourself. Sometimes it’s easier just to stay away,” Shewfelt said.

Savannah Hopkinson
Hunter Searle was the mediator for the Disability Questions and Etiquette Panel for Disability Awareness Week, Oct. 23-27. Students asked questions about what it is like to be a BYU student with disabilities. (Savannah Hopkinson)

Zach said people at BYU can be a little wary about expressing or sharing they have a mental illness because they are worried people will look at them differently; however, that seems to be changing as people are becoming more aware.

Hunter helps to plan activities for DAP, some of which help spread awareness and acceptance of students with mental illnesses. Last year Hunter was involved in a panel discussion for Disability Awareness Week about what it is like living with an invisible disability, and this year he was the mediator for the panel.

Hunter said there seems to be a stigma on campus that emotional disorders aren’t real.

“People have this idea that everybody feels stress and you just have to work through it. I think it’s important to teach people that in certain cases there’s a lot more than that. They can’t just work through it,” Hunter said.

There are also people who have the opposite reaction and think bipolar disorder is more extreme than it actually is, Hunter said.

Savannah Hopkinson
Students write questions for the Disability Questions and Etiquette Panel for Disability Awareness Week. Students could ask any question about what it is like to be a BYU student with disabilities. (Savannah Hopkinson)

“I feel like a lot of people think I’m just completely unstable all the time and I’m always going from one extreme to the other as fast as possible. … I’ll be honest I actually used to think that about bipolar (disorder) before I was diagnosed,” he said.

Hunter said he has learned he needs to work harder to stay on top of things like eating and exercising to keep his mental health in control. He is still dealing with problems, but Hunter said he has gotten to a point where he is confident and knows how to cope with having bipolar.

“I’m constantly working to stay healthy, constantly working to monitor myself just so I can stay on top of things, because if I were to let myself go a little bit it would just spiral down,” Hunter said. “My goal is to never end up back where I was when I came home from my mission, which was the lowest point in my life.”

Shewfelt said she doesn’t see anything holding Hunter back and can see he is a smart and dedicated student who is able to work with his disability. His brother agreed.

“He recognizes that it’s a part of him and something that he’s going to have to live with and work with his whole life, but it hasn’t really stopped him from achieving. It’s actually added another way that he’s been able to achieve because he recognizes the need for service,” Zach said.

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