One in four college students has a diagnosable mental illness.
Throughout high school, I felt the weight of anxiety and depression, but I struggled to call them by name. When I came to college, I thought I would leave those problems behind- I would have a new life, new friends, and keep my baggage at home. I thought it was the sole answer to my prayers. A lot of things did get better, but the baggage didn’t disappear. I shoved it under the rug until it crept out and grew and filled every empty space I had. I didn’t want to see my new friends anymore, didn’t want to leave my new room, and even taking care of myself on a basic level every day felt like a seemingly impossible feat.
Coming to terms with mental illness has been a long journey. I’m a psych major who wants to be a therapist one day. I’ve studied mental illness daily. I want to fight stigma and lift up those who are struggling. Still, it took me years to finally acknowledge what I was going through and take steps to get better (and I want to tell you now, it does get better).
You might be reading this because you’re wondering if you have a mental illness. I want you to know first and foremost that you’re not alone. College students, especially freshmen, go through a lot. You’re taking care of yourself, finding new friends, balancing stressful classes, and, essentially, starting to build your own life. When you take these things into consideration, it’s not surprising that so many students struggle with their mental health. However, I used to think that because it was so common, my struggle was less significant, and it took awhile to realize that wasn’t the case.
I hope you know that the commonality of mental illness doesn’t mean that it’s less of an issue. Mental illness looks different for everyone, in regards to symptoms, severity, and responses. No matter what it looks like for you, you deserve to have it addressed, and to feel better.
I also want you to know that, if you feel guilty for having a mental illness, if you feel like a burden, or if you feel like something is inherently wrong with you, you can let those feelings go.
Many people forget that mental health issues are legitimate health issues, and may feel like it’s “all in their head.” Well, it is. It’s in your brain. Your brain, which is an organ (the most complex one, at that)! And just like any other body part, it needs help sometimes. It’s okay to not be okay.
I hope you are able to recognize that what you’re going through is valid. That’s the first step in taking action to feel better, and when you’re ready, I hope you reach out for help.
There are a lot of little steps you can take to better cope with mental illness. It’s important to develop healthy coping mechanisms when you’re feeling good so that you can come back to them if you feel yourself struggling. Have an outlet of some kind – journal, make art, or go for a run. Have things to look forward to, even if it’s something small. Get outside and clear your head. Pick up a new hobby. Try going to different clubs on campus until you find your place. Practice self care. Try to eat well, get sleep (I know that sounds like a joke for a college student but trust me, coming from someone who used to run off of about three hours per night, it’s important), and take a break when you’re pushing yourself too hard. Find exercises to help you stay present and appreciate the good parts of life. I know you might have heard a lot of these, but you’d be surprised how much making these small changes can help. Some days, even little efforts like these may be difficult, but please don’t be too hard on yourself. If you tried to do even one thing to take care of yourself in a day, it’s making a difference.
If you need a little extra help, consider seeing a school counselor or a therapist in the area. There’s sometimes a stigma around therapy that prevents people from getting the help they need, or often people are hesitant because seeking help means acknowledging there’s a problem. But therapy is just a place where you can share those thoughts and feelings that are weighing you down with someone who wants to listen, understand, and offer solutions (and it’s all confidential). Having friends to talk to is important, but sometimes we need a little extra support.
That being said, my final suggestion is to develop a healthy support system. Having friends you can trust or a community that you know has your back can make all the difference when things get rough. CCW took a major part of that role for me. I hope that wherever you find that community support, you hold onto it.
Overall, remember to check in with yourself. While you’re at it, check in with your friends too, even the ones that seem strong and happy. Even if you don’t have a diagnosed mental health issue, if you’re going through something or even just having an off day, I encourage you to give yourself grace and be intentional about taking some time to yourself and doing something that makes you feel better. Remember, even on your worst days, you are not alone, and there are better days ahead.