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News / Health

Gonzaga graduate spreads mental health message on college campus

By Treva Lind, The Spokesman-Review
Published: May 19, 2024, 5:47am

SPOKANE — When anxiety plagued him his college freshman year, Grant Hagen leaned into one repeated thought.

Keep going.

The Gonzaga University student replayed the mental mantra over and over in his head, across the months when his unexpected mental health issues didn’t seem to wane. He wrote the phrase down everywhere.

With hard work in therapy, support, antidepressants and outreach to others, Hagen said he finally felt like himself again by the end of that freshman year. He graduated Sunday with a psychology degree, along with a minor in entrepreneurship and innovation.

For the past three years, Hagen has felt compelled to share his story to help others. While at GU, he launched his “Keep Going” information campaign and website, gave speeches and trained to be a crisis counselor.

He also became a leader in the university’s chapter of Active Minds, a national group to promote mental health on college campuses.

“I was never the type of person you’d think of when you think of a mental health problem,” Hagen said. “When I did start struggling with anxiety, I thought that I’m not the type of person who would deal with this, like why am I all of a sudden having these problems?

“I thought, ‘I have nothing to be anxious about. I have nothing to be depressed about.’ But you know, those problems can arise for anyone or any reason. It’s not something you just can control or wish away.”

He grew up in Danville, California. Describing his childhood, Hagen said he felt every bit the picture of a well-adjusted youth. Both his parents were supportive, and he was active in sports such as soccer.

Hagen did community service work, got good grades and never struggled with depression or anxiety prior to college.

“I tell that part in my speeches because I want people to know that regardless of what you think about yourself or how you may appear on the surface to others, or what they might see in your life as well-adjusted, that’s not to say that you’re never going to struggle with mental health. I want people to know that it can truly happen to anyone.”

He’s unsure how much that COVID-19’s shutdowns and isolation, then still in effect, might have affected him when he first moved to the Spokane campus in August 2020.

“It was almost immediately while moving into my dorm freshman year,” he said. “I remember all of a sudden feeling very nervous, really anxious about moving away from my parents, being on my own in this new environment.”

He shared what he felt with his parents, who reassured him that he had just made a big life adjustment, often causing people to feel anxious. He should get through it once he settled into a routine and made friends.

“That to me made sense,” Hagen added. “It’s like first-day jitters. I did the best I could to meet people, make friends. Even after getting into that routine, I still felt really nervous, really anxious.

“Those first-day jitters never faded, then it went from first day, to the first week, to the first month, and then I’m almost done with my first semester. I’m still feeling this way.”

It had become overwhelming, all-consuming. He was barely eating or sleeping. He had self-critical thoughts. In his later speeches to students, he explains the concept of intrusive thoughts that seemed to come from nowhere.

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“You think, that’s a weird thought and you kind of push it away, but if it’s really intrusive, it will get into your head,” he said. “With bad anxiety, you ruminate about it, and you’re like, why am I thinking this? Why am I worried about that? Then you convince yourself it’s a big deal. You can’t turn it off. That would happen to me.”

Returning home after his first semester, he talked to his parents. That led to him working with a therapist over winter break. He continued meeting with that professional over Zoom meetings when he returned to school.

Therapy is also a lot of hard work, Hagen added, and not instant. Because it was a challenging process, he said he’d get upset about whether the therapy was really working. He’d sometimes return to being self-critical again.

“But I started telling myself if I ever felt super down, it’s going to get better. Some day, it will and you have to keep doing therapy, you have to keep going. All of a sudden, I kept saying that — keep going, keep going. I’d repeat that.

“That seemed really motivating to me. Then eventually by the end of freshman year, a couple of months of therapy and all that, I started feeling a bit better, back to my normal self — almost. I started taking antidepressant medication, so that was helpful, combined with therapy.”

As he gave speeches or talked to others, Hagen also began to realize he wasn’t as alone as he thought. He found it better for him, and others, to describe everything.

“I found out this is a really common thing for people to deal with, and if this phrase ‘keep going’ could help others, then I have this message. How do I share?”

That’s when he started creating ideas for a logo and ways to use it. He started a website in 2021. From Keep Going clothing sold online, 10% is designated to nonprofits such as the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

He said he’s received all positive feedback since then. His crisis counselor volunteering is through the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. It offers an anonymous way for people to call for a counselor available at all hours.

For his separate work with the Active Minds, he became vice president of the local club this past school year.

“We would meet to pick a topic discussion, different aspects of mental health, and encourage students to push that conversation further, normalizing those conversations.”

Overall, he spreads the message to reach out, ask for help. Don’t hold onto emotions.

“I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t,” he added. “I don’t think I’d have as fulfilling an experience, but that is by far the scariest step. It can be really hard to start that conversation. My goal is that it’s OK to start it, or give them a way to feel comfortable about it.”

He said he doesn’t work with the therapist any longer but still takes the antidepressants. “The longer you take them, they build up in your system. Consistency is key. I feel very comfortable, very confident now.”

He credits Gonzaga students as being a population that is both friendly and genuine.

By this fall, Hagen plans to start on a master’s at Pepperdine University in clinical psychology, with a goal to become a therapist. It’s a two-year program.

“I would love to work as a therapist. As of right now, I’d like to work with younger populations in high school and college. My therapist made a tremendous impact on me working with him. I’d like to give back and be that same type of figure in someone else’s life.”