Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Employers like to look for certain traits in their applicants.
Some companies want someone who is innovative, creative, curious, and motivated. Others scout for those who are ambitious, competitive, resilient, and analytical. At the career fairs on campus, recruiters always emphasize a preference for problem-solvers, artists, logical thinkers, and good teammates.
No one asks for someone with a mental illness.
Earlier this week, I had filled out a personality assessment for a job opportunity. The task seemed simple enough: Choose from the list of words the ways that you are expected to act by others. Then choose how you would describe yourself. Check, check, check.
However, it soon became apparent that what I was checking off for the former question were not matching all of my choices for the latter. Admittedly, I had to stop and think. How much of the way I act on the outside aligns with who I am on the inside? Of course, there are certain aspects of ourselves that we mask around others, especially in professional settings. What you would say to your friends on a casual Friday night may not be as appropriate in a workplace or a job interview. This is normal.
What about vulnerability? What about the stress or the anxiety? What about the days when you’re not innovative or ambitious or motivated or logical because you can barely bring yourself to get out of bed? How do you prime yourself to be a stellar candidate for a role when you are struggling with mental health?
Applying for competitive positions has always been an incredibly draining process for me. As someone who battles anxiety and struggles with issues of confidence and motivation, answering a question as simple as “Why do you think you’re a good fit for this role?” can seem like an insurmountable hurdle and can take days to answer. No matter how much I accomplish or how many goals I set out to reach, at the end of the day, it has never felt like I’m enough. The gap between how I perceive myself and who I aspire to be is a vast chasm, connected by nothing but a single thread. As I fill out my qualifications and sell myself through application questions, it feels as if I am lying to the recruiter. Would a job look for someone who is afraid of failure or making mistakes? Would I be hired if the company knew who I really was, beneath all the professional and socially conditioned layers, at my core?
Then, I take a deep breath. Inhale. Exhale.
I tell myself that I am enough.
From my experience, I have truly learned that we are our own worst critics. When you find yourself in a downward spiral with the sky diving toward you, threatening to envelop you in an all-encompassing darkness, even the tiniest speck of light is enough to pull you out. Reach out to family and friends as they may be the ones who can offer the support and reassurance you need. They see you as how you are to the world, which is honestly a much better individual than the ones we have conjured up in our heads. Though it may be hard to believe, your friend is not lying when they say how awesome you are.
Remember, you are not alone. Part of the anxiety of applying for jobs is the isolating prospect that you are the only one struggling with mental health. More people than you may think also have their own hurdles to overcome, even those that may seem like perfect role models or empowering figures. For instance, Elyn Saks is not only an Associate Dean and Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry at the University of Southern California but also a brave woman diagnosed with schizophrenia. Mental illness and success are not and should not be mutually exclusive. Like any other part of the body, the mind must be cared for. Like any other part of the body, it can get sick. Most importantly, like any other part of the body, the mind can heal.
The challenges you face with mental illness do not take away from your identity and your traits. Yes, I still struggle with anxiety over the smallest things. There are days when I break down because my to-do list is so long that I have to scroll. On those days, it can be difficult to pick myself up. However, on those days, I am still ambitious, creative, and curious. I am still a resilient problem-solver and leader, and I am able to work well with others. I know this because I have made it past those days. I have broken through the darkness and basked in the sun. And I know you can, too.
You do not have to be perfect to be hired, but you do have to change your perspective. Companies are not searching for capable robots who can master any task. Rather, they welcome learning and mistakes because these are signs of growth. Can you overcome challenges? In the face of adversity, are you able to keep pushing forward and come out stronger?
The answer is yes. By taking on life everyday and working toward greater mental health, you have, and you will continue to do so. And if I were to be a recruiter, I would say that you’re more than qualified.
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