OPINION: Fighting Stigma Of Needing Help At Colleges

CW: Discussions of mental health issues and suicide

During my sophomore year, I often felt pride telling people about my heavy workload and involvement on campus. In addition to taking five academic classes, I was a peer mentor at Scripps College, the head baker for Challah for Hunger, a leader for On The Loose, a bike shop tech, and a Motley Coffeehouse student baker.

When I rattled off this list, people were impressed and astonished. Peers and friends saw me as competent, academically driven, and determined — an image I desperately worked to uphold, even when it failed to reflect how I saw myself.

Anytime that image was confirmed by hearing, “Wow, you’re so on top of it,” or “That’s a huge workload, I don’t know how you get it all done,” it only reinforced my determination to maintain that reputation. Among other students at the 5Cs, I frequently felt competitive in how much I was doing, rather than how well I was doing.

During that year, I often thought that if I wasn’t at my absolute limit, I wasn’t working hard enough. I felt guilty for not satisfying the unrealistically high expectations I’d set for myself, or for feeling unmotivated and unhappy at an institution that prides itself on the quality of student life. I found it difficult to recognize and process my feelings of incompetence, sadness, or fear, when the stress of academic work and commitments always dominated.

The spring of my junior year, after a series of tumultuous fallouts with friends and the end of a relationship, I hit a serious low point. I spiraled into patterns of thinking that I wasn’t deserving of love, or at fault for how those friends had treated me. However, when people asked how my week was going, I chalked up my feelings to a stressful midterm season and extracurricular commitments, terrified of letting people see how poorly I was doing.

Talking about academic stress became the most common denominator in conversations with friends during meals, while working at the Motley, or seeing others around campus, because unlike my emotions, academic workload was quantifiable. Yet, the fact that even I didn’t understand the cause of my own loneliness or unhappiness meant I believed no one else would either.

So, I kept it to myself. Countless times I crossed paths with someone and told them I was “good,” only to return to my room in tears.

Scared of becoming a burden or not being taken seriously, I initially retreated from friends. I was afraid that reaching out for help would mean breaking the reputation I had carefully constructed.

However, once I finally made the choice to share the extent of how hard things had been, friends were immediately caring and validating. They made me feel heard and respected. No one ever told me I was any less of a person or said they didn’t have time to help.

Over the last year, my ability to reach out to others and recognize cycles of feeling sad or worthless has only improved.

But less than two months ago, my best friend’s brother, a high school senior, committed suicide. His death was a complete surprise to everyone who knew him. Like me, my friend’s brother had close friends and a great relationship with his family. He was an active and beloved member of his communities.

In the days that followed, I was deeply saddened, shocked, and unable to focus on anything else. I found myself continually thinking about my own mental health over the past few years, and the importance of continuing to reach out to friends and remaining open about how I’m doing.

During a eulogy at the memorial service, his parents asked, “If he had come to you with his troubles, how many of you would have offered to help?” Every single person raised their hand. It likely wasn’t for a lack of an existing support system that he took his own life.

His parents’ question served as an important wake up call for me. It reminded me that as difficult as it can be to push past the fear of people seeing me differently or the idea that needing help makes me weak, support is always available and worth seeking out.

Throughout my four years at Scripps, trying to balance academic success and personal mental well-being has been a constant battle. However, part of finding that balance began with being more mindful of interactions with those around me.

At the 5Cs, we often ask one another, “How’re you doing?” out of formality rather than genuine interest. Now, during meals with friends, I make an effort to start the conversation with something other than, “I’m swamped this week,” or “I’m really stressed about an assignment for class.”

Steering the topic away from work often leads to a more meaningful and worthwhile discussion. I can learn what’s going on in my friends’ lives on a deeper level, not just how they’re feeling about an upcoming midterm.

Initiating conversations about mental health can be daunting, yet almost every time I have, someone else has voiced that they’re grappling with similar, if not the same, thoughts or feelings.

I know how challenging it can be to speak openly and truthfully about personal emotions, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. It is my hope that discussing mental health and sharing experiences more readily will help others change the assumption that everyone else is thriving, and promote an environment in which symptoms of depression and anxiety are no longer reasons for judgment. ​

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