Shift That Paradigm: Of Mental Health, College, and The Continuous Process of Getting Better

I was surprised to learn, when I got to college, that I didn’t have a monopoly on misery or ill-health.  Up to 8% of people aged 18-25 have a serious mental illness, which makes sense because this is the time when many such disorders materialize, and because, let’s face it, being a young adult is really stressful.  It’s stressful if you’re in college, because of course it is, and it’s stressful even if you don’t graduate high school, because nothing in your experience has prepared you for living on your own, buying your own food, paying bills, working full-time, registering to vote, or washing your delicates.

I have been diagnosed with depression, GAD, and PTSD, and for a long time I was preoccupied with dealing with those problems.  It was only after I sought, and received, appropriate care, that I saw I wasn’t alone – far from it.

I’m not going to be all proud and say that I’m exceptionally sensitive or receptive, or that I have a special talent for writing.  But of my friends in high school, almost all of them were male (and therefore conditioned not to express their feelings) and almost all of them have gone on to engineering or computer science related fields.  Additionally, within my own field (biochem) depressingly few people like to write at all.  So, when I wrote poetry or blog posts about my struggles, I really felt like I was complaining too much, that either no one else felt like I did or everyone else did and I was just being weak.

That’s changed this year, as I’ve learned that talking to someone who’s been through similar problems can be even better than just free writing.  I think this fits into a larger trend that I’m seeing at my university (hopefully it’s occurring everywhere); the gradual realization that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of.  I think it’s just hard for some people to wrap their heads around, because such disorders can’t be seen as easily, and they don’t understand certain important differences.  Depression is not the same thing as sadness.  Skipping a meal isn’t the same thing as anorexia, etc.

When I finally got a name for my condition, it was first hard to understand that the mess that was in my head had a solution.  Then it was hard for me to accept becoming one of the 11% of Americans (and 3% of Hispanic Americans) who takes antidepressants.  It was hard for me to get used to feeling alone and isolated, and now it’s hard for me to get used to having open and honest dialogue about mental illness, and to get used to the idea that I’m not alone after all.

But it’s proving to be worth it.

The risk of suicide and multiple health problems, including heart disease, immune deficiency, substance abuse, and malnutrition increases dramatically in people with mental illness.  If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of such an illness, don’t hesitate to call your local emergency number.