Hey there! As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Since the beginning of the year I wanted to write something about it for my school’s chapter of Her Campus. I wanted to make sure my article included lots and lots of different perspectives, so I brainstormed a list of questions I wanted to ask and created a Google Form to collect answers from other University of Iowa students!
You can find my article here, if you’re interested! I’m quite proud of it. Since my opinions and experiences are not in the original piece, I thought I would answer my own questions here today.
Trigger warning: This post includes mentions of suicide ideation.
What mental illness(es) do you have and what misconceptions do people have about it/them?
I have depression, anxiety, and OCD.
One misconception a lot of people have about depression is that if I just have enough willpower, I can change how I feel. Well, it doesn’t work that way. At all. All the positivity in the world can’t fix my fucked up brain chemistry; that’s a problem for my therapist, my meds, and myself to handle.
As for anxiety, people think there is always a specific reason I feel stressed and nervous. Sometimes there is, and sometimes there isn’t. Some days I wake up feeling really tense and I DON’T KNOW WHY. Demanding to know why I feel this way doesn’t work when I don’t know either, and even when I do know why, their advice is usually, “Just ignore it! It’s all in your head!” Like, yes, that’s why it’s called a mental illness. As much as I wish I could just shut down certain areas of my brain, it doesn’t work like that. bYE.
Finally, people don’t seem to understand that OCD isn’t “quirky” or “cute” and doesn’t have anything to do with being super organized or clean. To be honest I’d probably say it’s the most debilitating of my mental illnesses and seriously impacts my life, making even the simplest tasks difficult, uncomfortable, and time-consuming. (And BTW, it doesn’t make me more organized. If anything, it’s the opposite because I get so absorbed in things Not Feeling Right that I totally forget to, like, wash the dishes or putting my school stuff away at the end of the day.)
Have you used campus resources such as University Counseling Services? If so, what was your experience like?
I visited UCS for the first time in February 2016 and have continued to use this resource to the present day. My experience has been nothing but positive! I’ve had the same therapist the whole time, which I really appreciate because we’ve gotten to know each other well.
I used up the ten one-on-one appointments allotted to each student in the spring and early summer of 2016, so have participated in group therapy the past two semesters. Although I was initially shy during group meetings, I now find them comforting because I am reminded each and every time that I’m not the only one who feels the way I feel! I’ve spoken to a number of people who were turned off by the idea of group therapy and I just wish they knew that it’s not as scary as it may seem. You’re not even mandated to attend for the entire semester: All they ask is that you come to a couple of meetings to see if you like it!
I also want to add here that my therapist has been GREAT about setting up individual meetings when needed even though it’s no longer required since I’ve used up my one-on-one sessions. At first I thought it was because I was expressing thoughts of suicide at the time but she’s been open to meeting privately even after those thoughts had passed, so she must really care about me. I still really struggle with my mental health and have bad days, but I would be much worse off without the help of UCS.
What advice would you give to a mentally ill student who wants to be successful in college?
WORK WHEN YOU HAVE THE ENERGY AND MOTIVATION! Seriously, do as much work as you can handle without burning out, because it will save your butt when you have no energy later on. That strategy has gotten me through four semesters of college and while I am forever trying to find a more balanced way to live, this seems to work best at the moment. I don’t and can’t know for sure which days will be bad ones, so I try to work ahead as much as possible in order to prepare for the times when I can barely get myself out of bed and make it to class on time.
How has your mental health changed throughout your college experience?
I’ve noticed a definite improvement from freshman to sophomore year. I’m a little sad that I didn’t enjoy my first year of college more, but also recognize that I can’t change the past. I can only work to make my future better.
Last summer stands out as particularly difficult. Because I remained in Iowa City to take extra classes while the vast majority of my friends left town, I felt extremely isolated and listless.
Breaks in general are hard for me because being home brings up all kinds of memories of being terribly lonely and sad back in middle school and high school. I do my best to find things to fill my days so that I’m not left with only my own thoughts for company, though.
How do you practice self care?
This past school year I took every Sunday off. The difference it made in my life was amazing! Of course, this means I must aim to work pretty hard the rest of the week in order to make sure my time off doesn’t cause me to fall behind. Some weeks I’m more motivated to do this than others! I use this free time to read, write, watch movies or TV, and hang out with my roommate and friends – all things that relax me. I also visit the Haunted Bookshop, an indie bookstore that has two cats, because being around animals reduces stress and depression. I mean, really I just go because cats are so stinkin’ adorable, but it’s so lovely to walk home afterward feeling happier and less stressed.
I also try to get plenty of sleep, and second what one of the respondents to my survey said: “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.”
Sleep is essential, but it can be difficult to make people take your need for lights out and quiet because constantly burning the candle at both ends is glorified in college. All of us, neurotypical and neurodivergent students alike, could benefit from getting more sleep. One of the biggest reasons for the drastic improvement in my quality of life between freshman and sophomore years was that I created a daily routine that included making myself get at least eight hours of sleep, ideally (but not always) between 11 PM and 7 AM.
How have your professors, TAs, classmates, and advisors treated you?
I can’t say that my mental health has ever come up in discussions with my academic advisors, but I’ve told a few of my professors about it. Not a one has been unhelpful so far.
A typical example is that of the prof who taught my Literary Retelling & Impersonation writing workshop this spring. I was starting to fall behind in the reading and as a result, my quiz grades were slipping. When she noticed, I explained that I was having a difficult time with my mental health.
I told her that it wasn’t that I didn’t care about her class: In fact, I had really been looking forward to it and was disappointed with myself for not getting more out of it. I said that I knew I needed to work harder and she told me to let her know if I needed help again in the future. I didn’t, but I did push myself to work through the Depression Funk™. Honestly, I’ve found that most professors are incredibly understanding and patient as long as you make a sincere effort (and don’t spring this stuff on them right before a major test or deadline!).
Some classmates and I veered onto the subject of mental health in the same class because one of my workshop partners wrote a story about it. Later, one of my classmates said that she thought I was very brave for being so open and honest with the professor, which made me stop and think. I’d never considered it brave. I was just doing what I thought I had to do. Hearing that from her was definitely a huge confidence boost and solidified my belief that it was the right thing to do.
How have your friends, roommates, and RAs treated you?
I wasn’t very close to my freshman year roommate, but my roommates since have been amazing. Both of them were very kind and thoughtful by noticing when I’m not doing so well, inviting me to spend time with them, et cetera.
My friends and roommates alike frequently use humor to cope. I know a lot of other mentally ill students and we often crack self-deprecating jokes to lighten the mood. Helps remind us that we’re all in this together, I suppose.
I’ve never gone to my RAs for help but as one of the students quoted in my article put it, that had more to do with me than it did with them. I’m sure they would have been approachable and helpful if asked, but I haven’t so far.
I’d be interested to know what your own experience with mental health + college is like, if you’re comfortable with sharing! I’m also willing to answer any other questions you may have, within reason – nothing too weirdly personal, of course, but I’m happy to help in any way I can!