Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among college students. A remarkable 33% of undergraduate students nationwide have been diagnosed with one or more mental health disorders; 22% screen for depression; and 20% report engaging in self injury. At MIT, we have not been immune to these problems. On the contrary, being in a highly competitive environment — whether a university, a startup or a large corporation — seems only to exacerbate them.
In my project Portraits of Resilience, I set out to photograph and interview members of my own community at MIT who had experienced depression, anxiety and similar challenges. I met with students, faculty and staff who shared moving life stories, and wise reflections on dealing with adversity and finding happiness. So many people came forward that I ended up turning the portraits and accompanying stories into a book, recently published by MIT Press. My hope is that readers suffering from similar challenges will find strength and solace in the discovery that they are not alone.
The excerpt here is taken from Lydia Krasilnikova’s verbatim telling of her own experiences. While Lydia did not suffer from depression to the same extent as many of my subjects, her insights struck a particular chord with me and can serve to remind us all of what truly matters.
It was October 29th, 2012. My research wasn’t going too great and classes were taking up all my time. I was very stressed out and unhappy and I wasn’t exercising or sleeping or eating right or socializing very much. I was very miserable and my boyfriend and I had a big fight and we almost broke up. It was very dramatic.
I wrote a blog post titled “Meltdown” saying I’m hoping that this is all worth it because I came here to build myself into something better. But it really did feel like I was being stretched very, very thin. The response was incredible. A lot of people commented and a lot of people emailed me, especially people I’d looked up to that I didn’t realize really saw me.
Shortly after, I lost my job and my grandfather died. Then it felt like when I wrote “Meltdown” that I had had everything back then.
My parents had me young, so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. The last time I saw my grandfather, my mom and I went to Israel where he was in the hospital to spend time with him for a week. He’d lost the ability to speak but, for that week, we got our own little miracle. It was as if he was healthy. He spoke, he could walk around—it seemed like he was better. It probably made him feel very loved and cherished and that probably does wonders for fighting cancer.
Anyway, I had brought a stack of papers for a job and I was reading these papers instead of fully dedicating myself to spending time with him. That is absolutely one of my biggest regrets. That job led to nothing. It doesn’t matter what I sacrificed. It wasn’t worth it, not even a little.
It’s so important not to prioritize career over family. You don’t realize what people are doing in your life, what roles they’re playing, sometimes until they die. And you don’t know what you are holding together in other people’s lives. You might not know that you are the glue holding together so much, because you take yourself for granted, just like we take other people for granted. Before my grandfather died, he had been holding up so much. I had no idea.
Anyway, all of that fell apart. I felt like I had lost everything. I think that’s the lowest I’ve been. The mind is like a forest floor: the more you walk paths the deeper they get and the easier it is to walk them again. When I wasn’t doing so great, there was a path falling into unhappiness, and the more I walked on it, the deeper that path got. Eventually, if you let it, that darker path will get covered up with leaves; the leaves will disintegrate over the winter and by spring there will be new dirt covering it. The path is still there but it’s shallow and small and you don’t have to fall into walking it.
One of the biggest realizations that I had is that happiness isn’t something that happens to you. It’s a choice. There are certain things that I know I need to do to be happy and I make the choice to do those things—first because I deserve that, second because I have things that I want to do in my life, and third because my family and the people who love me deserve that.
In order to be happy my boyfriend and I run two or three miles a day. I don’t eat junk food or sugar except on Sundays when we run to Union Square Donuts and we eat like five donuts. Mental health and physical health are so entangled. I just know, if I want to have a good day tomorrow I need to run today, I need to not eat junk food today, and I need to go to bed on time.
If you are pouring all of your self-worth into preparing for that exam because that is the only thing you’ve been doing, then of course if do worse than you hoped it’s going to suck. But it sucks a lot less when you have other things in your life that you’re living for. I think it’s important to use something other than career or classes to mark the passage of time. For me, it’s pages read, and distance traveled on foot, and watching my little brother grow up. I’m building myself as a better writer and thinker by reading and by exploring the world around me. I keep a little log of new words. Sometimes I go through them and it makes me very happy. In particular, I learned the word scintillating and I love that word; it’s mine now. I know that I’m building something, something that is my own and that is just for me.