A man looking over his shoulder
Quinn Wakefield (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

‘Our brains can trick us into believing things that are not true’

Facing his depression head-on with support from therapists and family has led art student Quinn Wakefield to a better appreciation of himself and life in general.

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About How I Turned It Around: In this series, students who’ve struggled academically and otherwise share insights, resources and stories of how they got back on track.

Quinn Wakefield has been an artist his whole life. When it was time to go to college, he realized that art was something he wanted to do professionally.

Like most VCU School of the Arts students, he found the VCU campus to provide a comfortable home for artists. And throughout his three years here, the art program has been “absolutely wonderful.” In fact, the junior communication arts major has excelled, making the Dean’s List in fall 2020 and again in spring 2022.

However, like more than 40% of college students in the United States, Wakefield struggles with depression.

“Depression has been a big struggle with me personally since becoming a teenager,” he said. “And while being [at VCU], there have been times where it has been particularly overwhelming. Dealing with things like loneliness or self-hatred. Sometimes it would get so overwhelming to the point where I would physically harm myself.”

As a freshman, Wakefield lived alone, adding to his loneliness. He started to struggle in his classes, but not enough to raise any flags.

“I would skip assignments and not show up to class and stuff like that because I would just be so miserable and tired and just out of it,” he said. He started making friends his sophomore year, but when a bout of depression hit, he stopped hanging out with them.

“You know, when you start to feel depression and, mixed with that, a heavy loneliness, it makes it even harder to reach out to people,” he said. “I stopped reaching out, and I became even more closed off.”

Additionally that year, Wakefield was working and taking more credits than usual, and he became overwhelmed. His work ethic was reflective of how he was feeling. He didn’t finish projects and, frankly, didn’t care.

“I didn’t have a whole lot of motivation, but I kept going anyway thinking that it was going to get better,” he said. “I just kept going.”

A man smiling at the camera while holding his hands behind his neck
Wakefield wants students dealing with depression to know they aren't alone, and he shares his experiences by channeling them into his art. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

While Wakefield now realizes he first experienced depression in high school, it wasn’t something that he completely understood. He knew he was sad and that something was wrong. But once he got to college and started to understand himself more, he recognized how serious it was. And that he needed help.

“That’s when I realized that, yeah, I might suffer from a lot of depression,” he said.

He reached out to University Counseling Services — which provides help such as comprehensive clinical services, recovery support, mental health screening and well-being resources — and was set up with a counselor.

“I was going back and forth in these counseling meetings just to get some guidance,” Wakefield said. “And that really helped a lot.”

But after a particularly serious bout of depression put Wakefield in the hospital this past summer, it became apparent to his family that something was urgently wrong. They got him in touch with a psychiatrist and since then, he’s been going to one-on-one therapy sessions and diving into the world of self-care.

“I put in a lot of hard work … in terms of actually understanding and taking the time and effort towards healing and getting better,” he said. “So that was a long process. Basically, I had to take the time to get into that mindset of healing and growth for myself so that I can get better. And I have gotten a lot better.”

This experience has made Wakefield appreciate himself and life in general more.

“I have a better understanding of myself as a whole,” he said. “And since facing the depression, pretty much my whole goal in life should be towards prioritizing growth. I feel as though growth and seeking growth is very important for all of us as humans. So that has become like a big thing for me. How can I grow and continue to grow and how can I continue to protect myself and care for myself more excellently?”

Wakefield would like others dealing with depression or mental illness to know that they are not alone.

“You’re not alone because there are so many people who, maybe not feel the exact same way as you do, but that can relate to you,” he said. “Everything just takes time. And patience is key. … Even if you don’t feel OK in the present moment, even if you don’t do OK in the next moment or tomorrow, there will always be highs and lows, but everything just takes time. You can’t rush healing.”

One mantra that Wakefield found helpful was “fact over feeling,” which his VCU counselor taught him.

“You can feel a certain type of way, but sometimes your feelings may not reflect what’s actually true,” he said. “So I was advised to keep in mind what’s actually true. … It’s like our brains can just trick us into believing things that are just outright not true.”

Wakefield has implemented many of his experiences into his artwork and comics, which has helped him view his depression in a different way.

His work has been published in Emanata, a student-run publication dedicated to uplifting the comics community at VCU and the Greater Richmond area by providing avenues for comics artists to publish their work in an anthology. “That’s pretty much all I want to do for the rest of my life is draw comics and write stories,” he said.