College students on every campus struggle with mental health issues. Karl Shallowhorn, a leading mental health advocate and substance abuse counselor, knows these struggles firsthand. He faced his first disabling bipolar episode as a freshman in college and struggled with addiction and a recurring mental health disorder for years after.
Shallowhorn spoke about his experiences and how young people can maintain their emotional health during tumultuous college years on Wednesday Sept. 26 in the MacVittie College Union Ballroom.
Growing up in Amherst, N.Y., Shallowhorn had a typical high school experience involved in sports, participating in musicals and activities and earning decent grades. At the time, the drinking age was 18 years old and he regularly attended parties where he drank to excess. While he did not realize it at the time, this early exposure to alcohol caused him to develop an addictive personality that would affect him later in life.
Shallowhorn graduated high school and attended college at General Motors Institute in Flint, Mich. where he was quickly exposed to drugs and more alcohol.
“I was caught up in a work hard, play hard environment,” Shallowhorn said. “My life took off in a whole different direction.”
As college progressed, Shallowhorn began struggling academically and experiencing paranoia. He thought people were watching him and reading his mind.
In his second semester, Shallowhorn felt paranoid and delusional. He went into a psychosis, became catatonic and tried to take his own life. He was found and taken to a hospital where his journey with mental illness began.
Shallowhorn continued to abuse drugs and alcohol in a cycle of repeated admissions to hospitals. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder one, which meant he would struggle with a few weeks of “highs” and then months of “lows” combined with debilitating depression.
Finally, at the advice of his therapist, Shallowhorn joined Narcotics Anonymous and he began to turn his life around.
“I stepped in hopeless and walked out with hope,” Shallowhorn said. “I thought if this woman could do it, so could I.”
For those struggling today, Shallowhorn emphasizes the value of activities and communicating with others. His involvement with the radio station helped him throughout college and his passion for music is still his primary coping skill. Shallowhorn also runs marathons and believes that sleep and gratitude are important.
While Shallowhorn’s battle with bipolar disorder and depression is ongoing, he has learned how to cope with his illness and has devoted his life to helping others. He worked in higher education for 12 years at Buffalo State, Genesee Community College and Daemen College.
Shallowhorn is currently the Education Program Coordinator at the Community Health Center of Buffalo and a New York State Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor. He has worked at Horizon Health Services for three and a half years, learning the importance of care and compassion for other people.
For students who struggle with similar issues, Shallowhorn believes in the importance of intervention—if help comes early, a positive outcome is more likely to happen. He encourages struggling students to use their resources and speak to counselors, including on-campus trained professionals.
Shallowhorn aims to break the stigma surrounding mental illness and to encourage students to understand that it is a common experience.
“Always have hope,” Shallowhorn said. “You never know when you will turn that corner and things will get better.”