“This will be the best years of your life”. Going into college, these words are said to young people by parents, teachers and grandparents what feels like a thousand times. Most of the talk around college is that a young person is finally starting the beginning of the rest of their adult life. What is not often talked about is the endings. The endings of childhood, of comfort in the “nest”, and of having your childhood best friend just down the street from you. Going into college, I was caught off guard by the feeling of loss that I felt. I was expecting to enjoy all of my newfound freedom, yet instead I found myself missing my animals, home, and my high school friends. This resulted in me being more stressed and anxious than ever before. My high expectations for a “fun” college experience were being shattered around me and here is why.
I did not take the time to process the fact that I was leaving home. A couple weeks into fall semester of college, I realized that I had let the move-in date creep up on me without taking the time to understand that I was not going to see my family and friends every day. However, instead of crying about it or calling my mom and moving along in a healthy way, I avoided my parents and pushed aside my feelings claiming I was fine. I drank too much and I had anxiety about making friends and doing well in school. When I returned from winter break, I could immediately tell something felt off. I had just been home for three weeks and I realized that coming back to school, I was not happy. About two weeks in to the semester, I had my first panic attack. After that night, I realized that my stress and anxiety were a big issue in my life, even if I was not aware of it or knew what was happening to me before. I felt disconnected from friends, and I had anxiety that was causing me to have irrational thoughts and feelings that I could not control. What I have realized since the panic attack is that I am not really okay, but it is important to process that fact, tell someone, and find a game plan that works for me.
What I wish I had known coming into college, is that it is okay to feel scared and vulnerable, and to process those feelings. Being vulnerable is a big part of coming to college. You are quite literally being plucked away from your home, friends, and family and dropped into a new place, with all new people, all on your own. An article from Time magazine states that, “though mental illness may not be at the forefront of parents’ and students’ minds when they go off to college, young adulthood is a critical period for mental health.” During a big transition and when students are most vulnerable, mental health issues that students may have been previously unaware of can worsen or begin to be an issue. It is proven that being away from home for the first time, access to alcohol and drugs and the rigorous demands of academic life can all worsen anxiety and depression in young people. In fact, one in five college students struggle with mental illness although statistics show that only about 40% of college students seek the help they need.
College was definitely a time when my mental health issues popped up. I knew in high school that I had a family history of depression and anxiety, but I was always able to cry and get over my problems pretty fast. This is because I was a comfortable and generally happy person. I did theater and was always very busy with clubs and AP classes, but I loved every minute of it. As soon as I started college and tried to navigate this new life, that is when these preexisting conditions showed. I could not handle the overwhelming feelings of anxiety with trying to have my life together in a new place with all new people. Knowing now that it is not my fault that I feel this way has helped me realize that I should not be ashamed of my anxiety and that getting help is extremely brave and will help to make me a happier person in the future.
Here is my advice to anyone who may be feeling the way that I did and still do. It is okay to not be completely happy during the transition to college, and it is okay to acknowledge it, and it is okay to not be okay. In fact, admitting that you are not happy, instead of pretending to be happy, can feel pretty empowering and can help lead you on a road to recovery. If you find yourself feeling unhappy, talk to people you trust. You never know who could be feeling the same way and who might be able to help you. Try to take care of yourself. This may be hard at times, but try your best to eat healthy, exercise, and take some breathers/meditate. While this seems like a common-sense thing to do, to someone who feels overwhelmed by the many tasks they have to perform, completing such simple acts as taking care of your body can make you feel so much better. Do things that you enjoy. If you like theater, take an acting class. If you like to hike, get a group of friends to go hiking one weekend. This is crucial to releasing the stress and anxiety you have bottled up inside of you. Lastly, medication is okay. If you find that your mental health is controlling your life, do not discredit the fact that medication (although I understand it is not the best solution for everyone), even if just for a short time, may be a good solution for you. The bottom line is that you feel the way you feel, and do not let anyone, including yourself, convince you that you should be a happy and put together person all the time, because during the transition to college, it is perfectly okay not to be okay.
***I would like to acknowledge that while my suggestions are generally accepted by psychiatric journals and other sources, what works for one person, may not work for another, and everyone’s mental illness is slightly different. My suggestions refer mainly to my own experience and people suffering from anxiety specifically. If you find these suggestions unhelpful, I highly suggest doing research of your own on what sounds best for you and also talking to a professional about your specific needs.