It’s that blessed time of year when fresh-faced, dewy-eyed, sweet-voiced little munchkins head off to college for the very first time. Shower shoes and plastic caddies in tow, they lug big suitcases full of clothes and high school memorabilia (Yearbooks! Championship ribbons! Teddy bears from hometown boyfriends!) up into poorly ventilated dorm rooms, meeting roommates and RAs and professors and future lovaaahz and potential new BFFs in a whirl of orientation activities. Many of them have been indoctrinated with the message that college is the BEST time of anyone’s life, the period when you have the most fun of all –- whether your definition of “fun” equals marathon bouts of studying, sex or Quidditch (or all three).
But what happens when college isn’t awesome? What happens when a student finds herself facing the darkest part of her life instead of the lightest and brightest?
I think about that a lot.
I think about it a lot because it was my experience the first time I tried college, an experience I chronicled in my book “Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom.” And I think about it a lot because I travel frequently to speak to college students about what to do when college doesn’t turn out the way movies and TV and your parents and high school teachers tell you it will.
According to the 2011 American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA), 38.7% of male college students surveyed and 55.9% of female students surveyed had felt “overwhelming anxiety” within the previous 12 months. 25.9% of males and 33.1% of females had felt “so depressed it was difficult to function.” And 6.7% of males and 7.1% of females had seriously considered suicide.
I’m honestly surprised that last pair of numbers isn’t higher.
I got lucky, in a sense, that my struggle with agoraphobia and suicidal depression didn’t hit its lowest point until my junior year at Emerson College in Boston, when I’d had time to cement friendships that would prove to be of invaluable assistance during that time. Two of my friends were instrumental in identifying that I was in crisis and contacting my parents for more help. I didn’t eat much. I slept up to 20 hours a day. I thought nearly constantly of killing myself. I stopped showering, dressing and going out of the house. I mostly confined myself to my bedroom. (It wasn’t the most glamorous period of my life, but it was certainly the most pungent).
Now, I don’t mean to underestimate college’s potential for sheer awesomeness. For me, it was a real “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” type of experience (although I’m pretty sure I only pretended to read “A Tale of Two Cities” for Great Western European Literature or Stuff Dead White Men Wrote or whatever class it was). I learned a lot, I wrote a lot, and I fell in looooove a lot. I also clocked 6 years at a grand total of five schools before I finished.
After my nervous breakdown at the age of 21, I relied on a combination of medication, therapy, family support and mindfulness training (especially breathing techniques) to help me heal. By the time I got my diploma when I was 24, I was in a much better state of mind. But it had been a greater struggle than I ever could have imagined when I was a hopeful, excited, 18-year-old incoming freshman.
While reflecting on my less-than-picture-perfect college adventure, I asked other folks to share their own stories of college-era emotional and psychological struggles. My hope is that some suffering student will see this post and feel less alone. Maybe she or he will even be more inclined to reach out to the student counseling center, friends, or other resources for help. Or maybe she or he will just feel less like a freak for wanting to stay in bed and cry while seemingly everyone else excitedly skips off to the football game.
“I remember bits and pieces of college. That’s all. I was overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, afraid to leave my room, afraid to go to class, staying awake sometimes for days at a time and then sleeping for even longer. I was a terrible student. Got suspended. Got booted. College, to this day, is a source of shame and disappointment for me. It’s something I failed, something I missed a lot of due to my brain and my fears…I have since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, much to no one’s surprise.” – Anonymous
“My first quarter of freshman year was pretty awesome. I came back from winter break re-energized, but three weeks into the quarter, I was totally befuddled by my inability to cope with my class load and hyperactive/overly anxious mind. I could only sleep for 4 or so hours a night before I had early morning awakenings, which felt like waking up into a nightmare. Things felt heavy and interminably so. I felt like I was in a hole that was getting deeper every day.” – Tam, 27, Los Angeles
“The depression really started getting to me in college. Coming back on Sunday after a weekend back home, I would feel the most intense sadness I’d ever felt in my life. I just thought it was part of growing up, and I would have to get over it.” – Sarah, 40, North Carolina
“I was enrolled for the summer semester, and for some reason, while school was going better than it had my first year and a half and I even had friends, I was never happy. I always felt despondent and on the verge of wanting to hurt myself, but I was too scared to act on it… I started taking the medication…I did notice a definite change in my mood. I never got deeply sad or despondent anymore. I didn’t find myself crying in the shower and not knowing the reason why. But it also made me kind of numb.” – Jennifer, 30, Atlanta
“When I was at NYU, I was extremely depressed for a number of reasons. I was so depressed that I began researching ways to kill myself. I should back up – I still suffer from depression, but I’ve shaken my family’s stigma against mental health professionals. But I was really researching, trying to find an easy painless way to kill myself. About a week into this, NYU suffered from a series of really terrible suicides. And, oddly, my first response was to not understand why. Do the old, ‘How tragic. How senseless.’ At the same exact time of my life when I was considering suicide. And I think that’s the disconnect that makes it difficult in school. You’re in a new environment, going through massive life changes, often in a brand new city. Obviously you’re going to be depressed and scared. But it’s so easy to forget that you’re not the only one.” – Mike, 28, San Francisco
“When I left for school, I was so excited to be in a new place and exploring new possibilities for myself! I was ready for the challenges that faced me, or so I thought. What I didn’t plan on was that I would go from being surrounded by family and friends who I loved and who loved me for 18 years to living with one of the only friends I had for miles (I don’t think I would have made it without her) and to have my world devastatingly crushed my second year in with a truly soul-shattering breakup.” – Sabrina, 25, Seattle
“I’d always been an emotional child and just, sort of, sad, but it came to a head once I went to college. My depression links closely to social anxiety so it fed into many of the stressful social experiences that go along with matriculating. This coupled with a difficult roommate situation and a dawning realization that enrolling at a university does not magically remake one’s personality, drove me into a dark place.” – Libby, 31, Long Beach
“My first serious suicidal thought was when I was a freshman in community college. I remember it was a Friday, as that’s generally when it hits hardest. I live far out of town, with no car or job, so I spend 99% of my Friday nights at home alone with my mother. I know friends are there to come get me, but I always feel like a burden. And when I’m alone, specifically at night, I get trapped in my own head…I ended up attempting to write a suicide note. Luckily for me I take too much pride in my work and this was a terrible suicide note, one that would be part of my legacy, and that shit was not happening. Even more luckily, my best friend called me by chance and I just broke down. He got me calm, he got my head on straight. Time went by, and I still had problems with getting really depressed, but nothing that led to a suicidal thought.” – Kevin, 20, Tallahassee
Was your college experience less than ideal? Did you experience severe anxiety, depression, or other psychological problems? Let’s have a chat in the comments about what we went through, how we got through it, and our advice for kids just embarking on their college journey.