May is Mental Health Awareness Month. College is an incredibly intense and stress-filled time already, and having a mental illness just makes it harder. As someone who with depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, there are times when life seems overwhelming, even unbearable. One thing that helps me, though, is reaching out to others. If you’re mentally ill and in college, you’re definitely not alone. It’s so important to talk about our mental health—from therapy and medication to self care and coping techniques—because with each new conversation, we are reminded that others understand and care.
With that in mind, I recently made a questionnaire asking about students’ experiences with mental health and mental illness. I want to thank everyone who participated for their contribution: I couldn’t have done this without your input!
Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What mental illness(es) do you have and what misconceptions do people have about it/them?
“I have generalized anxiety disorder. People don’t understand that there doesn’t need to be a specific trigger for a panic attack or a bad anxiety day. Sometimes there is, and when there is it is great because you can remove the bad situation or change your thought pattern. But when there isn’t, you are just paralyzed—and having people ask you what triggered the anxiety attack and not having an answer can be really hard.”
“People think that those with depression and eating disorders should look and act a certain way, and I don’t fit that criteria.”
“I have anxiety and ADD. People think that stressing out over a paper is the same as having an anxiety disorder. And when it comes to ADD, people think if they can’t sit down and write that paper in one sitting, it’s the same thing that I deal with. Anxiety and ADD are more than that. Anxiety is feeling like you’re drowning because you think you aren’t doing enough all the time even if you might be. When I try to sit down and write a paper, even if I take my medicine for ADD, I still can’t focus most of the time. People think that Adderal fixes the problem, but it only helps with focusing. It doesn’t help where your focus is.”
“I have PTSD along with depression and anxiety. People tend to think that only soldiers or people involved in natural disasters develop it but in reality it can happen to anyone. It happens when you go through years of abuse, whether it be from a parent or a significant other. Once you escape that dangerous environment your brain leaves its crisis mode necessary to help you survive, and that’s when it hits, and you have to learn how to deal with the symptoms and become yourself again. It’s a long, drawn out process that never ends and that’s something people also don’t understand.”
“Most people have a misconception that anxiety is always triggered by something, but sometimes it’s completely arbitrary like you’ll be lowkey hanging out with friends and having fun and then you just get the overwhelming sensation that something is Wrong and you need to be Somewhere Else Right Now. As for depression, there’s the misconception that it’s just feeling sad all the time. It’s not. It’s more like feeling incredibly empty and disconnected, like there’s a layer of felt between you and your emotions and another between you and the world. There’s also the misconception that something specific is causing it, when really everything in my life can be going right, and I have every reason to be happy, and I’m just… not. For no reason.”
Have you used campus resources such as University Counseling Services? If so, what was your experience like?
“My experience with group therapy and the therapy services has been excellent. My experience with the psychiatrists has been subpar. They seem to just want to give you medicine and send you on your way.”
“It was terribly uncomfortable for me. Also, you can’t do private couselling for more than one semester.”
“I used UCS to find a local therapist that I could see long-term on a regular basis. The people that I worked with were very helpful and welcoming. They took into account the issues that I wanted to focus on, my location and transportation options, gender preference (whether I was more comfortable working with a male or female doctor), and my insurance coverage. In the end, I walked away with a list of potential therapists as well as ballpark estimate for the prices for each.”
“I went to UCS for eight sessions, and also did one of the four-week skill-training workshops for managing anxiety. It was great! While the goal-based approach took some getting used to and didn’t necessarily address everything I was hoping to, all of the staff at UCS are really nice and accommodating and genuinely want to help. I still feel better for having gone and learned coping skills, although the less goal-based approach I have with my current therapist (that the UCS case manager helped me get set up with) is more my speed.”
What advice would you give to a mentally ill student who wants to be successful in college?
“Take it one day at a time. Your mental illness is not your defining feature, and you can find ways to work around it. Make sure you take the time to take care of your body. Ask for help however you can. 90% of what you learn at college is learned outside of the classroom, and it’s perfectly okay if you learn how to take care of yourself. Attend class, ask questions and study. But don’t let those things rule your life.”
“It’s okay to have an unproductive day every now and then.”
“Tell your trusted friends and family members what is going on and try your best to tell them how they can help you. If all you want is to be held and allowed to cry for an hour while you have your panic attack, you need to tell them that. If you can’t talk yet, you need to tell them that. Assuming that they will know what to do to help you is only going to make you feel disappointed when they are confused on what would be best to do.”
“Do not isolate yourself.”
How has your mental health changed throughout your college experience?
“Coming to college was a hard change. I was very moody and acted out at everyone. “
“It has gotten markedly worse since the first semester of freshman year.”
“I’ve gotten much better since my freshman year. My mindset and attitude have gotten better bit by bit until now, where I don’t think my freshman self would recognize who I am today and how I live. I’ve sought out spiritual and religious guidance, which has helped incredibly. Getting involved in activities/extra curriculars helped give me a community, and I’m definitely in a better place today because I sought out that guidance and made those communities. Freshman year was the worst because of how new and intimidating everything was, and I didn’t know how to handle being in charge of every aspect of my life without self destructing.”
“It definitely fluctuates. I have gone through waves of depression, especially during stressful and overwhelming weeks, and in those times I have turned to my psychologist back at home, who has a ‘call anytime’ policy. Those phone sessions helped to organize my thoughts and jump back into the game.”
“I took 18 semester hours my second semester. Never again. Figure out what you can handle, and don’t compare that to everyone else. My roommate can handle 18 semester hours and a job. I can’t, and that doesn’t make me any less than she is. We just work at different paces and have different stress thresholds and that’s a-okay.”
“My first semester was terrible. Diet and sleep schedule are the most important things for people with bipolar disorder. I did not keep to my normal routine. I also had a hard time making friends. I was wondering was what was wrong with me. People complain about finals being hard, but they forget about people with mental illnesses that have to worry about relapses.”
“The first semester of my freshman year sucked. I started to struggle more with my eating disorder because I was so stressed and tired just generally exhausted. I just didn’t have the strength to fight it on my own anymore, and I told my parents about everything over winter break. My parents (reluctantly) let me come back for the spring semester with the condition that I had to find a therapist and go to regular appointments. After some trial and error, I finally found the therapist that I’m currently seeing, and I’ve been going for about a year now. In that time, my mental health has improved tremendously.”
How do you practice self care?
“Everyone makes fun of people who suggest yoga to help with mental health, but it’s helped me so much. I wake up early every morning to do a 30-minute youtube yoga class with my roommate and between the exercise and allowing my mind to calm down, it helps me so much. I also dance an average of maybe four hours a week, have a self-enforced midnight bedtime, and try to practice mindfulness meditation.”
“Whenever my feelings of self-harm resurface, I always make sure to do something that makes me happy. Nothing is worse than just wallowing, so I try to distract myself.”
“I try (though I often fail) to get a decent amount of sleep. This probably shouldn’t even count as self care because sleep is just something you need to be a generally healthy, functioning, human being, but I have to think of it as self care or it gets put on the bottom of my priority list.”
“I take time for myself. As an introvert, spending loads to time with other people exhausts me. So I care for myself by reading, journaling (which is gloriously helpful), ordering take out and taking naps. I make sure I don’t spend too much money, and I do my best to eat right and walk (mostly to class from my apartment). In the end, I am the most important thing. My education is very important and it’s why I’m here, but I am more important and worth maintaining.”
How have your professors, TAs, classmates and advisors treated you?
“Professors have an easier time understanding if you visit them face-to-face. I don’t know why, they just do.”
“I’ve not had much of an issue for my mental health in classes. The only time it’s really ever been discussed was when I started planning my semester abroad and what to do about my medications.”
“I have a close relationship with my professors. They know about my illness and are very supportive. They know if I skip a day, I am not lazy or hungover. They are very trusting.”
“I’ve needed to ask for an extension twice now on big projects, and both times the professor was really understanding. It was embarrassing to explain both times, but in both cases, they gave me an extension with no grade reduction. I’m not registered with disability services so they weren’t obligated to do that, but in my experience, they’re willing to help if you’re willing to truthfully explain the situation.”
How have your friends, roommates and RAs treated you?
“My roommates have told me when they thought I needed help.”
“I never talked to my RA about it, but that was more about me than anything about her. I think she would have been helpful and supportive if I had asked.”
“I haven’t told many of my friends about my mental illnesses. It’s something that’s hard to bring up in casual conversations, and I feel like it’s hard when there’s such a stigma around mental illness and there are so many misconceptions floating around. The friends that I have told are incredible supportive, however. It’s not something that we talk about a lot, but they’re there when I need someone to lean on and they’ve helped me in more ways then they’ll ever know.”
College can be hard, especially for those with mental illnesses, so it’s important to know that there are resources out there for all of us. Let’s talk about these things this month! What did we miss that you would add to these questions and answers?