End the stigma: Fighting for mental health awareness on campus and after graduation

Reaching for the light, despite encroaching demons.

Reaching for the light, despite encroaching demons.

I wrote a lot of bad poetry about rootless trees, as an angsty teen and a lonely college freshman. As an adult writer, my narratives wind around strong-spined women, stand on structure and steel. A lot has changed. And a lot hasn’t. This is a story about mental health and a journey toward wellness,  about how to prevent that journey from ending the way so many have. This week, the New York Times released a story called “Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection.” It got a lot right, but it missed the mark, just a little bit. This response is a bit about of why I care so much about campus support systems, about support systems in general but above all that, self-care and awareness. This is a story I’m compelled to share, because I made it. And a lot of kids didn’t. This story is for them.

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As a kid, I was shy, preferring the company of fictional characters in books than my peers. Other kids had tongues as sharp as knives, and the propensity for unfounded cruelty. I wanted no part of it. Instead, I spent most recess periods losing myself in words. There, I was perfectly happy being alone.

But in high school, I found my tribe. A group of girls as quirky as I was, one introduced herself to me by flaunting her glittery flame-splashed Doc Martens. Another went by the nickname “Pinky,” and frequently talked in a fake Russian accent. We dubbed ourselves the “Chicks of the Round Table,” and traveled together through those four years of plaid uniform kilts, school dances, first dates, breakups and the rites of passage high school brings. When one of us fell, the rest lifted her up. There wasn’t anything we couldn’t share.

Throughout childhood and beyond, my parents expected my brother and I to do well, to involve ourselves in extracurricular activities, but never pushed us past our limits. In one memorable incident, I quit the basketball team two months in, after making a basket for the other team in the only game my coach let me play. I was cut from the softball team “for insurance purposes,” after the coach confessed he was afraid I’d hurt myself or others with my epic clumsiness. When my brother and I were bullied as kids, mom and dad encouraged my brother to hit the kid back, told me to stand up for myself. While they took me on what I later dubbed “the college death march” to find a school that fit my needs, I was free to choose whichever college that was. And in the end, I thought I found my match. On paper, I was a high-achieving success story. Straight A’s, president of the National Honor Society, VP of the drama club, editor of my school newspaper, on scholarship to a private college.

Except. There was a darkness inside that rose like bile whenever I thought about failure. I spent many hours in high school scrolling through message boards filled with others like me; Type A’s who constantly felt inadequate, who lay awake churning with anxiety over a B on a test or a missed note in their elite orchestra. My online “friends’” coping mechanisms ranged from scribbling angsty poetry to self-harm, in varying degrees of extremity. A writer since middle school, paper became my outlet. I spent study halls filling pages with dark poetry, blood-dripping roses and Opheliac characters featuring prominently. Knowing I had the support of my friends, my family and my peers, I knew the pressure to be on top came from within, so I also turned my anxiety inward, punishing myself as both the source and benefactor of that sinking, interminable drive.

I was the only one of my friends to attend the college I eventually chose, one of the few to move away from home. Alone in my single dorm room, where I’d been placed in the “academic hall,” I wrote about feeling adrift, alone and unmoored without the social scaffolding that hadn’t kept me from myself in the first place. Because I couldn’t handle my emotional drowning alone, I found other girls who felt the same way and we bore each other up through days of moping through classes, nights crying over far-away friends and in our shared sadness, we found new fellowship. Having reached out from my pit of despondence, life ropes floated down to find me.

That could be the moral of my story, but it isn’t. Even though I found new anchors wherever I went, enrolled myself in clubs and classes that suited my ambitions and fueled my creative drive, the old adage proved true: “Wherever you go, there you are.” I could get straight A’s, star in the school play and spend every weekend at parties with my friends but when I got back to my dorm room, that black hole still awaited me, in the silence of my own spirit. No external forces could have changed that. It was up to me to reach out and work to eradicate it, and I’m so glad, so lucky that I did.

And it’s there where I take umbrage with that New York Times article. To blame the culture of colleges is to look at external forces for something that is, more often than not, an internal chemical problem. Sure, often parents push their kids too hard. Social media and its constant barrage of idealism heightens that need to measure up. But it’s not Facebook’s fault. It’s not Princeton, or Yale or Cornell or Penn’s pressures, although those are indisputably factors. They all are. We all are, because we certainly can’t deny that all of us who post filtered photos on social media are in essence, lying to the world and ourselves and contributing to the problem. But there’s a larger issue here, and that’s ignoring the undercurrent of mental illness that’s so much more pervasive than we, as a society, are willing to admit.

I still struggle with the internal need for perfection, but I’ve learned to recognize it as a false idol. Those of us who carry a stone in our stomachs know the need to claw our way to the top, but the lucky ones have learned to swallow that instinct. But it takes time, maturity and a lot of hard work to get there. If we keep blaming outside forces, parents, colleges, social media, whatever, our children, those students, won’t learn to cope with themselves. They’ll join the same blame game we’re all playing every day, with every new tragedy that scrolls across our screens. Social media isn’t going anywhere. College pressure, helicopter parents, aren’t going to change. Instead of blaming each other, let’s reach out to each other. Let’s acknowledge that so many of us feel the same way, and that there are resources to help brighten those dark spots. Let’s step into the sun, together.

Resources (Just a few of my favorites. There are many, many more)

  • Active Minds: A mental health resource to change the perception about mental health on college campuses
  • Unsuicide : A great wiki full of support sites, e-help lines and ways for those in crisis to reach out, even if they can’t call in
  • To Write Love on her Arms: A fantastic nonprofit movement dedicated to helping those struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.
  • Mental Health Resources: An official, governmental listing of where to get help in your area, wherever you are.

There’s no reason to struggle alone. There’s help out there, to get what’s in there out in the light. Reach out. Get help. Don’t suffer in silence. You’re never alone, no matter who or where you are.

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