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How I’m Dealing with Depression in College

I speak in the past tense whenever I reference my struggles with mental illness, as if mental illness is a thing that can one day be finished, completed: I used to get super anxious about stuff. In high school, I was really depressed.

The truth is, mental illness is not finite. I believe in recovery, but I don’t believe it’s a process that ever really ends. There is no ‘point’ one can reach after which they can say, definitively, I beat depression! Unfortunately, I spent a lot of time in the beginning of my college career trying to convince myself otherwise.

I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder when I was fourteen, and I entered a partial hospitalization program about a year later. At the time, I was struggling with self-injurious behaviors and intense suicidality. During my month-long leave of absence from school, I learned life-saving skills, challenged negative beliefs, and got better.

Hopeful about the future and excited for college, a part of me believed that I was impervious to depression. I viewed sophomore year as a chapter of my life that would never again be repeated. I was better now.

When I was discharged, I continued to attend therapy and take medications. Two years later, during the latter half of my junior year, I stopped medication, but kept on with weekly therapy sessions. And in the summer after my senior year, I stopped going to therapy altogether. Hopeful about the future and excited for college, a part of me believed that I was impervious to depression. I viewed sophomore year as a chapter of my life that would never again be repeated. I was better now.

And the first two months of college were a dream. I was always busy, always overwhelmed with the newness of everything, and I loved it. I loved the heavy workloads and the new friends, even when it all made me feel like I didn’t have time to breathe—because not having time to breathe meant I couldn’t really think.

But ‘keeping yourself busy’ as a coping mechanism is not sustainable. Depression and anxiety do not disappear because of homework or parties or extracurricular activities.

But ‘keeping yourself busy’ as a coping mechanism is not sustainable. Depression and anxiety do not disappear because of homework or parties or extracurricular activities. Whatever is pushed beneath the surface will catch up with you, and then it will break you. Just because I had learned helpful skills years ago didn’t mean that I was immediately able to utilize them now—I had grown older, my environment had changed dramatically, and things were different. I began to realize that depression was adaptable, and it was fully able to fit into my new life.

Mid-October found me huddled under my covers with what felt like an enormous weight on my chest. Constantly exhausted, I struggled to attend class, and when I did, I could never focus.

The funny thing is, my grades never dropped. The nature of my coursework—assigned readings, mostly, with little weight given to in-person participation—meant that, as long as I kept up in the textbook outside of class, I would be fine. But this lack of consequence led me to believe that I was still okay. I told myself that I didn’t have a problem, that I wasn’t starting to fall back again, because my grades were still good.

Of course, that wasn’t the case. I didn’t fully realize that things had gotten bad again until my depression began to affect my social life. Typically an outgoing person, I began to isolate myself from my friends, spending almost all of my free time alone in my room.

Why? It seems so easy now to say, You could have just gone and hung out with people. However, I simply didn’t have the energy to leave. And the negative thought distortions so central to depression work in circular fashion. I was convinced that no one would want to spend time with me, so I isolated myself; when I isolated myself, obviously no one was spending time with me, which then reinforced my original thought that, well, no one would want to spend time with me. Thought patterns like these sound stupid when said aloud or on paper, but to anyone who has ever dealt with depression, they are quite real.

I had worked so hard to be in a place where I was off medication, not attending therapy, and ready to attend college, and so asking for help made me feel like I was throwing away everything I had worked for.

When it was a Friday night and I was hunched over in bed, sobbing in the dark for no apparent reason, I finally realized that I had to do something—but I felt absolutely, completely helpless. People will always tell you that when you’re feeling down, all you need to do is reach out and tell a friend, but it’s much more complex. Telling a friend feels like burdening them with a heavy, heavy weight. Reaching out feels like taking a step back. I had worked so hard to be in a place where I was off medication, not attending therapy, and ready to attend college, and so asking for help made me feel like I was throwing away everything I had worked for. If I asked for help, I would regress back to the same place I was in years ago. I figured that if I had truly made any progress in treatment, I would be able to work through this on my own.

But, once again, that’s just not true. A few of my close friends noticed that I was off, and when I opened up to them, they met me with open arms and endless support. I told them, again and again, that I was terrified of them leaving me. I feared that my story was burdensome, and that no one would want to be friends with a girl who cut herself or tried to kill herself. And my friends, again and again, told me that they would never do that.

I’m endlessly grateful today for the people who listened to me without judgment, and I encourage everyone to find friends who will do the same. Beyond acting as an immediate support system, my friends also encouraged me to visit the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). CAPS informed me that, due to the severity of my issues, they were not equipped to treat me, but they did a fantastic job of referring me to off-campus, independent therapists within my healthcare network.

Here’s the catch, now: I have yet to visit any of them. Part of me feels bad for writing pages and pages about how severe my depression is, and then ending by saying, But I don’t actually do anything about it. I know I should, but quite honestly, it’s expensive, and I’m reluctant to spend time traveling to therapy when I could be studying or going to club meetings. Is that sad? Perhaps, but I think it just goes to show how complex treating a mental illness in college can be. There are so many factors that can prevent a person from actively seeking treatment, but that also doesn’t mean that there aren’t smaller ways to get better day by day.

I began in November by directly contacting my professors and truthfully telling them that I had been going through a hard time. They were incredibly kind and receptive, asking me if there was anything they could do to support me as a student.

One also directed me to the Office of Undergraduate Education, where I spoke to an adviser about my absences. The adviser then asked if there were any academic accommodations I needed to transition back into classes.

Everyone’s journey with mental health is very different, and there is no single solution that will work for everyone. I have found friends and resources to help me get past the worst of things.

The title of this article feels slightly unfitting to me. I’m tempted to make some joke, like, Funny how it says I’m ‘dealing with depression in college’, because…I’m really not dealing with it. Or treating it. Or doing anything about it. But I think that simply living with it and fighting every day is a lot already. Everyone’s journey with mental health is very different, and there is no single solution that will work for everyone. I have found friends and resources to help me get past the worst of things. That’s not to say that there aren’t mornings when I wake up, unable to get out of bed, with little motivation to learn. But in those moments, I know that I’m supported. And I’m getting better every day.

Author: Julianna Chen

Julianna Chen is currently in her first year at Emory University, where she studies creative writing and Chinese. She is the managing editor of Lithium Magazine and a contributing writer for Adolescent.net. When not writing, she is watching a movie or eating a stroopwafel, sometimes both at the same time.