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.


This post originally appeared on XOJane. Republished with permission. Click here for more Sara on XOJane! 

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  • My college experience was very short. I came from a very small HS (we had a graduating class of 45!) and I went to a huge private college on Long Island, NY. Not only did I have a hard time adjusting to the social scene I struggled academically. I was a pre-med major and was taking a science heavy courseload. Couple that with the fact that I was top of my class in HS and now could barely pass my college courses – Houston, we have a problem. I became very withdrawn and depressed. Would barely leave my room and spent a lot of time sleeping. I ended up flunking out without earning a single credit.

    I owe 10K in student loans and 9K directly to the university for tuition that was not covered by loans/grants/federal aid. Until the 9K is paid off I cannot enroll in any other secondary education institution. So I’m pretty much held hostage by this. I have been working since leaving college but with the cost of living in NYC being as high as it is, I have barely made a dent in my debt. Its almost 8 years later and I feel really trapped. when I left for college at 17 I had no real concept of money and I didnt think that 40K tuition was expensive. I figured thats just what you had to pay to go to school. Everyone always talks about getting an education at any cost, “Everyone has educational debt; they cant take away your knowledge”, and I just think its a crock of shit. Most teenagers probably do not understand how serious college is. If I knew then what I knew now I would have definitely waited to enroll. I’m 26 now and I finally feel like I know what I want to get my degree in. I just wish I didnt have 20K in debt to clear before I was able to get started :(

    I wont lie – I know a degree doesnt validate me but I’d be lying if I said that I dont get down on myself for not having one. I’ve worked in corporate for years and every single supervisor/manager has been shocked when they learn I don’t have my bachelors. Its almost like I’m ‘passing’ for college educated in a world where a HS diploma is only supposed to get you so far.

  • Me

    I don’t think you understand xojane how much this post means to me. It made me catch my breath. I had no idea that other people went through the experiences I went through. My junior was the worst year of my entire life if I had the energy I would have killed myself. I would sleep 20 hours a day, eat rarely, fear going to classes, wouldn’t shower or even leave my room, ignore calls for days, I wouldn’t even cry. There was all this despair inside of me that I couldn’t get out because I felt I made so many mistakes. I pushed away my best friends and hooked up with a guy who turned out to be abusive which only worsened my depression. I was failing school and felt that everyone was my enemy. I felt like a monster. I had to withdraw from that semester or I would have been expelled. After months of therapy and moving back home I came back to my senses but I mean it took MONTHS it was long for me to recover but I’m back in school now feeling confident than I ever have. I still have a year left to finish college but I’m glad I’m where I’m at in life. But I still sometimes feel like ‘WTF was I thinking? Why couldn’t I be normal like everyone else and graduate on time?” So words can’t express how it feels to see that other people have been through this too bc I honestly feel like a reject sometimes. I’m happier everyday and making positive changes but it feels good to know that there are ppl who understand what I went through.

    • Jen

      Keep holding on,I’m going to graduate many years later than I’m supposed to,but I’m hoping that the journey is more important then the time that it takes you to get there.At this point,I believe in just being healthy and happy when you get there.

  • Dang, ya’ll. I’m so sorry to read about all these terrible situations! I’m a junior at Indiana University and I absolutely love it!

    Since being here, I’ve been a part of a beauty scholarship pageant, met so many great friends (I didn’t fair to well socially in high school), got to go to New York, New Jersey, New Orleans and Tennessee all within my freshman year! My sophomore year was a little rough since I had a dorm room all to myself, since my foreign, international roommate wanted to move in with an old friend (girl was crazy.) I felt lonely. But you know what, I always remained involve in organizations like NABJ, Books & Beyond (a non-profit that works with children and English literacy) and Christian bible studies.

    And guess what you all? This summer, I even got the chance to go to the NABJ National Convention in New Orleans and Rwanda, Africa!!!

    I absolutely loved Africa. I wish I could go back…lol…Anyways, I’m saying all this to say that even though college was/is tough to the best of us, in the end, it was/is all we make of it. : )

    I can only pray that my junior year will be just as great.

  • UPenn

    As a freshman now in college, I am definitely struggling. I came from a school where I had four great best friends to a school where I no one wants to be my friend out of the 10,000 people here on campus. I’m slowly skipping more and more classes and losing all dive. Most importantly, I’m losing all hope that things are going to change. That new gap freshmen have to make friends is slowly closing and here I am still with absolutely no friends. I spend so much time in my room that my roommate hates me and has convinced my entire hall to shun me. I’ve never felt so loss, so powerless. Every time I feel like it is going to be a good day, it is in fact catastrophically awful which only sends me plummeting. I want it all to end. I want to take the easy way out, but the only thing keeping me going is knowing what my mother sacrificed to get me this Ivy League institution and how disappointed she would feel in herself if I were gone. I’m all she has. I just….need someone to talk to me…to want to be a genuine friend to me.

    • Gabrielle

      Hey I hope the year ended up well for you. As a fellow Penn student I know how much pressure you can feel to succeed and measure up to all the amazing people around you. This year was particularly difficult for me, but it really does help to have a good support group of people around you. As I told one of my friends who just finished their freshman year at Morehouse, be open to creating bonds with these people you don’t know. Sometimes it’s hard for me, but you have to make an effort to spend time with people you think are interesting and show some kind of interest in your well being. I know it’s a scary new experience, but we all have to figure it out it our own ways particular to ourselves. Also, don’t be afraid to talk to the people at CAPS. Best wishes!

  • Patty

    I loved this piece, even though I was underwhelmed by my college experience. While I met some wonderful people while attending college, I was just bored most of the time.

    I always had an idealistic view of college growing up. But I quickly discovered that most people just see it as a means to end and aren’t really interesting in exploring new things, confronting the things that they’ve been taught, and actually learning and growing as people.

    I also found it frustrating that I paying $160 a credit hour to be basically have a TA, or Grad Student/Assistant lecture to me almost verbatim from a textbook that I had just spent $100 dollars on. It was maddening and depressing.