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.
As a senior on my way out of this Ivy institution we call home, I find myself wanting to tie up loose ends. Where necessary, I would like to make amends, with my peers and my friends — to say thank you and I am sorry, simultaneously — to apologize for not sharing my appreciation before.
I blame geography. Where I grew up, to pose the question, “How are you?” means anticipating a real response. In my hometown, we wave on the streets and like to think sincerity is evident in the way we greet. It is not uncommon for a casual wave to become a 15-minute conversation. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, I have always thought that people who grew up in small towns like me were as open as the flat fields and the buildingless skies that surround us.
I had so much to learn.
Regarding openness — it is one thing to get a rundown of someone’s child’s academics or the full details of an upcoming surgery for their spouse. It is quite another to talk about how those life events are shaped by the depth of our moods and our mind — our mental health. Despite our sincerity and good intentions, mental health barely comes up in our conversations back home. “Mental health” is just a concept, a far-off place on a map of a foreign land. Four years ago, I realized this far-off place wasn’t so distant. It was in the form of Boston, brought to me by my peers, and it caught me by surprise.
After all, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into when I went to college; expecting to learn what a liberal education entails, to learn how to navigate campus, make connections, network, and get work done; I thought I was prepared. Knowing my peers would be famous, or geniuses, or both, I expected to learn a thing or two about academics, life opportunities, and success. I expected insincerity of my fellow students who were too busy to make the time, and above all else — perfection.
But what I did not expect was to learn from my peers how to not be calm in the storm. How to acknowledge the rain that is sleep deprivation, dampening even the finest of quality time with friends. How to survive through the wind of rejection that was my first audition.
In the midst of Boston winters and unanticipated emotional weather, you helped me find myself through your openness and courage, which were evident in even the first few conversations of college. The struggles I neglected to share for fear of judgment in my personal statement were ones you mentioned outright. Whatever it was you shared — a struggle with a sibling, depression, being stressed — you divulged it so openly, yet it made me respect you no less. Quite the opposite; in fact, it was courage I had never seen. In those moments you didn’t know, for someone like me, what that might mean.
To say mental health is stigmatized would be to say too little. Few of us have learned how to be vulnerable, and how being vulnerable makes us strong. To not resist does not mean to retreat; to weep is not to be weak.
To my peers who taught me all these things — I wish I could have thanked you before. I waited so long that I no longer remember how it feels to hide half the time. To have to hold my breath, and not let others know I was barely able to breathe.
Thank you for taking me off-campus to see the city, to look down and remind me things could be beautiful. Thank you for accepting millions of apologies and letting me get yet another one of your flannel shirts wet with tears. Thank you for not being afraid to say you were scared to take time off, tell me I’m wrong, show me you are not perfect, though your grades and your hair may seem it. Thank you for your offer to take me to dinner, even when things were still off with you.
And it is not because you are empathic and wonderful — though you are — that I have to say thank you today. It is because you showed me mental health is on the map, that if something is wrong it does not mean something is wrong with me. Thank you for showing me that students who are also celebrities and geniuses and Midwesterners can struggle — but we can do something more important, too. We can share our vulnerability with each other, and that makes us strong.
Above all else, thank you for teaching me the most important thing I could have learned in college — how to be open and supportive.
This article is for you — a way of saying thank you in the most open way I can.
I have you to thank for this article.
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Olivia Velasquez is a senior at Harvard College studying Biology and Psychology. Originally from Ohio, she enjoys running, dog-watching, and Latin dancing in Boston. She is excited to promote mental well-being and to contribute to Thrive as a Campus Ambassador.
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“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.”
- MARCUS AURELIUS