“I just saw one of my professors from last spring in the hall,” my friend says, sliding into the seat next to me. “He taught one of those classes I was absolutely horrid at. It hurt to see him—I wish I could’ve been in a better place so I could have been a better student. But he smiled and waved and said hi.” A nervous laugh. “What a great guy.”
I wish I could’ve been in a better place. That resonates at an almost uncomfortable level. Keyword: almost.
Anyone will tell you being a college student is hard. There’s a reason we list our occupation as “full-time student” when an average schedule is 15 credits and we’re expected to devote two extra hours of outside work per course credit. Not to mention all the jobs and extracurricular activities we squeeze in, and the socialization and housekeeping required to feel like a functioning human being. I don’t want to state the obvious, but this is all much harder to manage when your brain doesn’t work at full capacity due to reasons you can’t control.
I could hit you with all the statistics about how many adults experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lives, or how many college students, or how many students have comorbid disorders. I could explain to you in great detail everything I learned in Intro to Psych about how mental health disorders develop, how they affect daily activities, how little we understand about them, or how they often go untreated. But I think I would do better telling you about my personal experience.
I’m not officially diagnosed with anything, but I can put some temporary labels on the way my brain seems to work.
Depression, anxiety, trichotillomania.
As far as I can tell, I’ve had a mild depression since high school, possibly middle school, and a mild anxiety that flared up only a couple times in high school before settling in during college. I have a less concrete idea of when I developed trichotillomania (TTM) because I didn’t realize it was a disorder until high school, and didn’t accept it as something I had until just last year.
I overthink the heck out of everything. Over the course of a typical day I’ll be thinking about what I have to do after the thing I’m doing right now, and then what I have to do after that, and after that, and after that, until I’ve completely overwhelmed myself and exhausted all my mental energy so I can’t find the motivation to do any of the things I’d just thought about.
At least twice a week I’ll wake up in the morning feeling a mixture of empty, numb, drained, and not fully human, and then I’ll get frustrated at myself and my lack of motivation and beat myself up over it. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed, and my phone is my only window to the outside world. I forget about little things and big things, skip meals, and miss deadlines. (This blog is being turned in late.) I isolate myself and convince myself it’s because I’m an introvert, when I’m clearly not because being around friends is way more energizing than being alone.
As I read over the words I’ve just typed, my hands go up to the side of my head and start to play with a hair more wiry and curly than the rest. “I think it’s a manifestation of my mild anxiety,” I usually say to anyone who asks. This is normal for me, and though I don’t find it particularly harmful, I know from over half a year of thesis research that it isn’t normal for the general population.
You read that right: as someone possibly suffering from a mild form of TTM, I decided to do a year-long design thesis project on the very disorder, potentially exposing myself to triggers or more harmful behavior. For an acting assignment last semester, I researched and embodied Vincent Van Gogh in all his roughly bipolar glory. My current photography project consists of revisiting a specific memory from a year ago that still induces panic and anxiety when I think about it too much. I wrote an original song last year in which I beckon the audience to repeat after me, “I wish I didn’t think so much!” I don’t know if you can tell, but I love to fixate on how badly I function.
I also love to joke about the fact that I’ve had a mental breakdown about once every semester. These breakdowns have had different causes, but similar effects, involving falling behind in coursework and having to apologize and negotiate extended deadlines with multiple professors. The few professors I’ve been brave enough to be honest to about my mental health have been really understanding and helpful in getting me back on track.
One of my design professors (my favorite, actually, but don’t tell anyone) had to deal with this three semesters in.. a.. row. Luckily, he’s one of those really great professors that understands the pressures of college life and works with his students to make sure they learn the material and create the best products they can while looking after their own health. He often closes out class with something along the lines of, “Everyone, get lots of sleep and some vitamin C—it’s flu season.” He’s also the professor that urged me to see a counselor at the University Counseling Center (UCC), during the third breakdown he’d witnessed. That was the first time I was fully transparent with him about what was going on in my life, and that was the lowest point in my college career. I took his advice and visited the UCC, and soon I was seeing a counselor every two weeks and getting professional help.
Full disclosure: the UCC does not offer appropriate help for everyone on campus. That’s just the nature of mental health aid. Notre Dame is a good school with decent resources for people struggling with mental health, but it’s better for those that are going through temporary mental disorders, and not as helpful for those with chronic conditions. As with all therapists, it can take a while for you to find the right one for you. With the limited number of counselors on campus, it’s possible you won’t find one that works for you. I’ve had three different counselors that I saw regularly, and they each had their own style that didn’t quite work for me. But it was better than nothing, so I stuck with it.
Besides the UCC, there’s the McDonald Center for Well-Being, nicknamed McWell, which offers great resources and events for maintaining good mental health. They offer more preventative measures, which are just as important but not as helpful to people with ongoing mental health issues. Those are the two biggest official University resources, and there are lots of programs branching from them that vary in levels of depth, commitment, and formality.
So, yes, it feels nearly impossible to be a good student when my brain just doesn’t seem to work. I wish I could say there’s a happy ending where I find the perfect therapist, or strike the perfect balance between work and rest, or heal my brain and finish all my school projects and handle all my other responsibilities with ease and grace.
Of course, that’s unrealistic. My WVFI radio show is supposed to serve as a self-care accountability hour where I get myself in order and talk about the highs and lows of the week, but every time I’ve had the show I had to spend the time doing last-minute homework instead. I’m still figuring out my own patterns of behavior and how to work with them to produce the best results. I still have a hard time talking to my professors even though I know they’ll understand and want to work with me. Notre Dame still doesn’t have many open conversations about mental health and the benefits of checking in with yourself. But it’s getting better every year, and the more we talk about it, the better it gets for future students.
It’s unfortunate that college is a breeding ground for stresses that foster mental health issues, but there are ways to battle that. Reach out! Find those people you trust and love, and ask for their support in your times of need. Chances are, they’d love to help you out, and you can support them back when they’re having a rough time. Communicate with your professors and let them know what’s up. Share only as much as you’re comfortable sharing. You’ll have your good days and your bad days, and you’ll live through them.
It’s okay to not be okay. Cliché, but true. There really is no such thing as a normal lifestyle, but it’s important to figure out your own normal to set yourself up for success, whatever that might be for you. I’m trying my best day-to-day to do just that!
You’re not alone.