Welcome to our special 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.
In your darkest moments, you’ve thought it ironic that your middle name is “Blythe,” which literally means “cheerful, carefree, happy.” You’ve taken a cynical pleasure in the fact that your favorite color is yellow, warm like butter and sunshine.
Perhaps this cynicism was a side effect of your seasonal depression, which you first encountered in high school. Not that you acknowledged depression’s ugly, rearing head until the fourth or fifth visit.
Do you remember what it was like when those episodes of shame and sadness hit?
In senior year of high school, you wore pajamas to school and routinely skipped math class. You ate too little and slept too much. You were annoyed at your pervasive feelings of forlornness, sorrow, and rage, since your personality type — INTJ — was supposed to be devoid of emotions.
In freshman year of college, when depression hit in December, you researched study abroad programs religiously, convinced that it was something in the misty Berkeley air that was sapping your reservoir of self-esteem. You saw a school psychologist a few times, being sure to turn off your iPhone’s location services before entering the building, so friends wouldn’t know you were visiting a mental health clinic. You convinced yourself that your apathy was a byproduct of toxic relationships, blaming others for your mood.
In sophomore year, “Dancing on My Own” became your anthem, a vocalization of the lonely, lowly bystander that depression tricked you into thinking you were. You feared Saturdays, in whose unscheduled hours doubt and shame would wash over you. You took a class on Developmental Psychopathology, heard the field of mental health calling your name, and answered. You switched majors from Economics to Psychology. Wasn’t dad proud…
In junior year, you encountered Depression 3.0 and tried to keep it at bay by staying busy — remember that spontaneous trip to Japan? You found yourself failing your Spring semester classes. Being present around others took all your effort, and let’s just say that you didn’t earn any medals for being the life of the party. After two miserable months, you got in touch with the therapist you’d ghosted and admitted you didn’t see a point in living life. You swallowed your pride and told your parents you were struggling.
One of your friends cooked you enough Thai food to last a week. Another routinely sent you funny memes and encouraging quotes. After a few months, you started singing again. You interned at a mental health startup in SF and resolved to bring the conversation of mental health stigma to the workplace.
It’s senior year now. You tell your story to others, earning their trust and getting the chance to hear their stories. You take a mental health day off from work, and it feels great.
Less than a year ago, you hit rock bottom, sobbing, “I can’t pretend to be fine anymore. I’m more than just sad. Can someone please notice? I’m not okay.”
Now it’s December 2019 — finals week — and you are incredibly, unexplainably at peace. Later, you have plans to grab drinks with an old friend, marathon the Lord of the Rings trilogy, organize your closet, and text Mom that you love her. You notice the leaves have changed colors; the trees are a symphony of cranberry and apricot.
How did you get here? It wasn’t about staying strong or rationalizing the issue. It was about admitting weakness, defying stigma, and finding strength through others. Recovery started only once you were willing to face the problem. Remember this. Nobody is asking you to be a strong, silent sufferer.
Michaela, this isn’t a letter meant only to document your past. It’s meant to shape your future. Because if your depression comes back, I want you to look it in the eye.
I know that it’s scary. Depression is like holding onto the edge of a cliff. You’re both frantic for help and resigned to your fate.
But you must let go. Address your symptoms. Tell a friend. Call your doctor. Text a hotline. Shine a flashlight at the monster lurking in the corner and maybe, just maybe you’ll find that it was just a shadow. Or maybe it is a monster — but either way, ignoring it won’t make it go away.
So let go of the ledge you’re clinging onto, and trust that someone will catch you. Because you’re not alone. Hundreds of thousands of people have been here before you, felt what you’re feeling, and they are willing and waiting to help.
So take a leap of faith, won’t you?
If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental illness and need support, please call the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health) helpline, 800-950-6264. Or, in a crisis? Text NAMI TO 741741.
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