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.
I live in the newest dorm at a historic university and we have a rotten wall. Before you ask “how new could it be? Maybe the newest dorm is 100 years old,” let me clarify. I live in a two-year old dorm at a 175-year-old university and we have a rotten wall. The wall is rotten because of the water fountain, which has an issue with pressure or something like that because it shoots water past the drain and onto the wall. Water drips down all day long and eventually it turned into mold.
My room is directly across from the fountain, so when I need to fill my water bottle in the morning, the overachieving water fountain is the closest place to go. It’s sort of like a game — trying to catch the water before it can reach the wall — and (as in most games) I lose more than I win. Every time I see it drip down the beige paint, I wonder why someone hasn’t just adjusted some valves already. I see the rotten wall and I wonder how much more it will cost to fix that than it would have to spend five minutes fixing the pressure. And then I remember the test I have to study for and the friend I need to say hi to and the laundry I need to do and the job I need to interview for and the trips I need to plan and the naps I should be taking and the mom I should be calling and my thoughts of the overachieving fountain and the rotten wall are gone. Until the next morning when I wake up and the cycle repeats.
Yesterday, I went to fill up my water bottle and saw blue tape on the walls around the fountain. Two painters were standing by it with my rector (basically the hall mom) and I could tell that they were trying to paint the rotten wall. She began to explain to them that the rotten wall wasn’t the problem. It was a byproduct of the broken water fountain. If they painted the wall, it would look better for a few months. But eventually it would be rotten again. Unless the fountain was fixed.
I came back to the room and I sat down, remembering all the times I spent thinking about the fountain and the wall and I instantly understood why it pervaded my thoughts constantly. To me, it was a metaphor. I live in the newest dorm at a beautiful, historic university. But we have a rotten wall. It would be easy to fix the fountain that causes the problem but it’s easier to just paint over the wall and never dig any deeper into why it’s rotten.
We treat mental health like the rotten wall here. We’re a bunch of stressed out, high-strung, over-achievers, but we don’t talk about why. We tiptoe around the idea that imperfection could ever exist at a place with a 20 percent acceptance rate and we hide the fact that it does.
I have lived with OCD and generalized anxiety disorder since I was 12 years old, but it’s hard for me to be open about the fact that I had to visit a therapist for months before I learned not to let my illness rule me. I find myself trying to hide the fact that sometimes I don’t feel good enough to be here. Sometimes, imposter syndrome wins and I convince myself that a B+ is a failure. I forget that doing my best doesn’t need to be better than everyone else and that it’s okay to make mistakes. And I think a lot of other people here forget those things too.
We’re all here for a reason, but I think we think that the reason is to be the absolute best — the two-year old dorms in a world full of 100-year old buildings. We let the fountain of insecurities rain down on our lives and we build walls — rotten walls around ourselves. We think the best way to fix ourselves is to paint over them by studying harder and getting perfect grades. We aim for double majors and try to acquire every minor and join every club so that we can be crushed under the weight of a thousand cords when graduation day comes. We research subjects we hate because at least it’s research. We spend time trying to impress people we don’t want to end up like. But we never take the time to realize that we should just pause. We should adjust the valve and let the waterfall of insecurities run down the drain.
Yesterday, a speaker* came here and told us to turn to the people sitting next to us. He asked us to look at their eyes and say, “Neighbor. I am perfectly designed.” Instead of painting over the rotten walls in our lives, we need to expose them. We need to take the time to open ourselves to the idea that we may not be “perfect” in the way that everyone else wants us to be, but that we are perfectly designed as individuals. We need to be more open to the truth that we can’t all be the best at everything all the time, and that sometimes we need help. It’s so easy to get distracted and forget to ask for assistance.
Every time I thought about fixing the water fountain, I got too caught up in everything else I needed to do. The same thing happens when I’m having a bad day and could really use encouragement. Whenever I think about my mental health and how maybe I could give myself a little more attention, I get too overwhelmed and think about other things. And I get embarrassed because, how could I ever ask for help?! Everyone would learn my secret. But, just like they used to say in grade school, “Secret secrets are no fun unless you share with everyone.” So here goes: My name is Ashton. I am not perfect but I AM perfectly designed. I am exactly who I should be and I am exactly where I should be. I will make mistakes. I will fail. But I am here to learn and sometimes “failing” is the only way for that to happen. It would be so easy for me to paint the wall and feign perfection. But it would be futile. I would remain rotten inside and I would still shower in a fountain of self-doubt.
Thanks to the water fountain five feet away from my door, I feel comfortable sharing my truth with the world. I want to remind everyone who feels like I do that they can share theirs too. I also want to make it clear that sometimes, there are bigger issues than the rotten wall. Sometimes we have valves that need to be adjusted — illnesses that we need to acknowledge. They aren’t anything to be ashamed of and they in no way define who we are. But we don’t know how to fix them sometimes, and we need to call someone who does. Mental health is just as important as physical health, especially in an environment that expects so much work from the brain. Asking for help is necessary. It is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of self-knowledge and strength.
Remember to take care of yourself (especially as finals week rolls around) and remember that you are PERFECTLY DESIGNED.
*Karamo Brown of Netflix's Queer Eye
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