I love development theories. With a psychology and sociology background, I am so interested in seeing what makes people the way they are. Before taking my student development class last semester, I had never really thought about all of the experiences our students can have during college. I had plenty of awful experiences during my time in undergrad, but I just did not think that was the norm. While many experiences can be explained, many more cannot. Despite our best efforts, mental health is still taboo in our society. Whether a student is struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, whatever it may be, we need to know how to support them. It was not until recently that this finally made sense to me.
I have always been an anxious person. But anxiety is pretty easy to hide from the outside world. As a child and teenager, it was mild. I was more nervous than a “normal” person for any type of event. I slowly became more and more reserved until I would not speak out in class or a meeting at all. Although internally it was tearing me up, it wasn’t affecting my life enough that I thought I needed help with it. I would worry about things like, did I turn the faucet off? Did I shut that door? Did I unplug my curling iron? I would simply go back and check those things. Even if I was certain I had done it, there was always just this nagging feeling that I missed something. The first sign that I was really heading into trouble came during my senior year. I could be starving, and yet every time I ate, I would get so sick. I had numerous doctors appointments to try to figure out what was wrong. They prescribed a number of medications, none of which helped. Finally, they asked if I had a lot of anxiety. Of course I said no, and so my health problems continued.
Last year, something changed. It was no longer these seemingly small events that would bring on my anxiety. I began going into a panic if the doorbell rang or I got a phone call unexpectedly. Eventually, I unplugged my house phone because I couldn’t handle answering it without knowing who was calling. All of a sudden, I was in a constant state of panic. This was when I realized I needed help.
Asking for help with anything is never easy. Even though I had studied this for four years in undergrad, there is still such a taboo on mental health that I didn’t want to admit that I had a problem. However, I just couldn’t live in this state of anxiety any longer. It was affecting my sleep, my eating habits, and my every day life. I have always believed that I could overcome any mental state without medication, so walking into that doctors office, I felt defeated. However, after just a month of being on medication for anxiety, I noticed a world of difference. I no longer jumped every time the doorbell rang. I could answer my phone with ease, or at least better than before. I still worry that I forgot to turn off, unplug, close, or do something, but it is significantly less often than before.
This summer, I had the opportunity to attend a Mental Health First Aid Training. With my background in Psychology, I was so excited for the opportunity, but it ended up being one of the worst trainings I have ever attended. Other participants, other professionals, did not make it a safe space. When discussing anxiety, we did several activities. The first activity was in a group and we were asked to draw what anxiety looks like. Most groups had very surface level responses. We then did an activity where we were asked to give a word to correspond with each letter of the alphabet that described anxiety or an anxious person. So many of the words corresponded with the stigma surrounding mental health and were very negative: kicking for k, hitting for h, quirky for q. In all of my years living with anxiety, I cannot say I have ever kicked or hit anyone because of it.
Then a participant asked the questions I am so used to hearing: don’t we over-diagnose anxiety? Aren’t they just nervous like everyone else?
Anxiety doesn’t seem like a huge issue. Many people think people who are anxious are just overreacting, tell them to just calm down, or try to compare their own worries. Everyone gets nervous or worried sometimes, but it wasn’t until this was consuming my life that I realized I needed help. As I think back on my own experience, my difficulty accepting this, and the internal struggle I had when reaching out for help, I realize that we have students who experience this, and much worse, every day. As a student affairs professional, I hope to see the culture around mental health change. Our students have enough to deal with in college; they should be able to seek help freely when help is needed.