College is supposed to be a thrilling experience brimming with new opportunities that grant individuals the tools to discover themselves and embark on a captivating journey. While enduring the burden of difficult tests, these years are supposed to be the best of our lives. Yet it seems that for some individuals, including myself, the college experience delivers the complete opposite. It is reported that nearly one out of four college students suffer from some form of mental illness, including depression. Symptoms of depression can include difficulty concentrating, feelings of worthlessness, insomnia, appetite loss, headaches, feelings of hopelessness, feeling “empty,” as well as having suicidal thoughts. While some students are making friends, attending parties, and forming connections, students suffering from depression are often left behind.
Firsthand, I can relate to these experiences because as a student with a mental illness, I have had to create my own space of comfortability because it was not provided to me. Between un-triggered panic attacks before study sessions and locking myself away in my dorm, I knew that something had to be done so that no one would have to experience college in this way. To make matters worse, it is not uncommon that a mental illness such as depression is not taken as seriously in the campus atmosphere. Whether an individual harbors feelings of depression when they enter college or they develop them after they’ve arrived, mental illness will impact a student just the same. That said, let’s journey into the catastrophe that is living as a college student with depression.
On one occasion, I had to tell a professor that I could not attend a test because I was suffering from the stomach flu. Nevertheless, my intestines were not inflamed and I was not confined to my toilet. Instead, my feelings of depression were so overwhelming that I would have rather thrown myself off the nearest bridge than tried to endure the test that was scheduled the following day. It wasn’t because I didn’t study, it was not because I was ignorant to the material — it was simply because I just could not take the test.
Now, that probably seems unreasonable because physically speaking, I can walk myself to the classroom and take the test. However, my brain thinks that I in fact cannot take the test because if I try to, it’s going to send me into a full-blown panic attack and I’m going to fail because my mind will blank and I will remember nothing. So before you say, “It’s all in your head,” just remember that I know that. But also, I don’t. The thing about depression is that you cannot control it, regardless of the situation. Even as someone who has dealt with mental illness for nearly seven years, I am unable to change how I feel because my depression is not constructed like a light switch. I cannot turn it off now and switch it on later when it is more convenient for me, but I can learn to cope with it. Nevertheless, I never expected my mental illness would make college so unbearable — and I did not expect college to make my depression so incredibly powerful.
The most relevant but often unknown characteristic of depression is that it does not care if you have a paper due, a test to study for, or a book to return to the library. As most people with depression can relate, some days are better while other days are worse. Considering the lack of consistency, a larger obstacle is that you do not get to choose when these days are. It does not matter if the depression is so excruciating that you cannot get out of your bed even just to take a shower, the assignments still continue to flow. Even if you get angry for allowing yourself to procrastinate because you know you are not lazy, you cannot physically bring yourself to do the work because of the way you feel. To make the situation worse, by the time you are feeling a bit better, the workload has increased to the point where you cannot catch up. From there, you fall behind and your grades begin to suffer because of something you cannot control.
While some colleges allow students with mental illness the ability to apply for an IEP (Individualized Education Program) — the steps that many colleges require are lengthy and financially impossible for some students. Out of curiosity, I emailed Ohio State University in regards to applying for their disability services and what I found was interesting. Before anything, one must submit documentation of their disability. Nevertheless, in the case of depression, "disability" is not always thoroughly documented. To assume that it is, is also to assume that each student has had access to a therapist prior to attending college and the financial resources to complete a full diagnostic report as well as documentation providing proof of diagnosis prior to attending the institution. Most insurance programs will not fully cover the costs of therapy visits, anti-depressant medication, or the frequent blood tests that are required when constantly switching prescription medications. To assume that young college students have access to these resources is ignorant and demonstrates clear classism.
It is also not uncommon that those suffering from mental illness often hide their symptoms and feelings from those around them. To ask us to completely expose ourselves for the sake of your documentation is not only harsh, but insensitive. While colleges often claim that they are there for their students — behind the posters for suicide awareness, they have built walls larger than students like myself are able to climb. To further provide evidence that colleges do not take depression seriously — a firsthand experience of a close friend of mine includes her feelings being invalidated by counselors at her university. If being switched between counselors several times was not enough — each counselor individually told her that since she had a sense of coping skills, she did not have a problem. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that the words of these counselors did not send my friend over the deep end.
If only individuals like myself could simply email our professors and say, “Hey, sorry I couldn’t come to class today. I woke up this morning and was upset at the fact that I did. Not only that, but I couldn’t finish last night’s assignment because I was too busy drafting my obituary. If you couldn’t tell — I hate my life, I hate myself, and I want to die.”
This is where college campuses are severely deficient in their roles — because with some rewording and lack of profanity, everyone should feel completely comfortable messaging their professor when they’re sick, even if their sickness isn’t accompanied by a high temperature or vomiting. Just the same, professors should be more understanding to students like myself. Similar to many other college students who suffer from depression, I am only human. There are days where I cannot bring my shaking fingers to compose just one more paragraph for that eight-page paper. Some nights I cannot allow myself to sleep even if there’s class in the morning because suddenly-I’m-incredibly-sad-and-I-don’t-know-why-but-now-I-have-to-overanalyze-everything-and-I-can’t-breathe. Worst of all, sometimes I cannot physically take a test scheduled for the following day and instead have to pretend I have the flu because I’m terrified no one will f-cking take me seriously and I wish I could be someone else but I can’t and I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. We are simply trying to attend college and cope with our mental illness. We are attempting to build a future for ourselves while our minds are trying to tear us apart.
What must be done to make this entire experience just a little bit easier for individuals like myself is to be taken seriously for who we are and what we deal with. We are not just statistics for your posters, we are not just a subject in your psychology class, and we are not just “kids” that you can pawn off because you don’t want to deal with us. We are students trying to do the best that we can with what we’ve got. All we are asking of college campuses is for them to stop talking about something they don’t understand and instead listen to us. Dealing with mental illness, attending college, or speaking up about depression are never easy. However, with their help — we can make it so that everyone, even students like myself, are able to enjoy the college experience that is promised to all students.