From the time I was a small child, I was called a worrier and perfectionist by all the adults in my life. Teachers commented on how particular I was with my work, and my mom often told me to let small things go. I never really understood any of this, as it was a way of life. I didn’t know any different. Didn’t everyone feel like this?
My constant worry and perfectionism actually benefited me throughout high school and my first few jobs – it ensured I got straight A’s, promotions, and didn’t make mistakes. It wasn’t until college that I realized there might actually be a problem. While everyone else was taking their missteps and failures in stride, I was having panic attacks and isolating myself.
Around this time, I was lucky to find some wonderful student affairs mentors and discover my ultimate career path into working in higher education. But as I was applying for grad schools, there was a constant voice in my head. “What if you fail? What if you can’t handle the pressure? Why would anyone let someone like you with their life out of control be around college students?”
The first year of grad school was much like my college years – constantly coping with panic attacks, expectations of perfection, and depression when things didn’t go as planned. Between working as a resident director and taking a full load of classes, I didn’t take care of myself, and my expectations of myself were out of control. After a weeklong stretch of not being able to quiet my mind enough to get any sleep, I went to the health center in complete desperation. I was referred to a counselor and psychiatrist and ultimately diagnosed with Generalized and Social Anxiety Disorders. Almost immediately I was started on anti-anxiety medication.
You would think having an answer for my worries and struggles would have made me feel relieved. Instead, I felt crippled. I feared telling my coworkers, supervisors, and friends what was happening because I just knew they would tell me I couldn’t continue working in student affairs. I struggled with my own voice telling me that every day. How could I balance taking care of myself and taking care of students? Was a career where crises happen at the drop of a hat the best fit for someone who hated not knowing what to do? What would parents or students say if they found out about my mental illness?
I’d love to be able to say my worries were wrong and I was met with all the support in the world. But that’s not what happened. Yes, I had supporters, but I also had a lot of folks speak right into my fears. As I started my second year as a graduate student and started planning my job search, I decided to continue working in the (unpredictable and wonderful) area of residence life. This decision was met with comments such as, “Are you sure you can handle that?” and “You need to really think if that is best for the students.” And at first, I let those thoughts cause me pause. Maybe they were right.
My real turning point came in a conversation with a student. They were struggling with their own anxiety and depression and were avoiding an appointment with the counseling center because of the stigma. They didn’t want to seem weak. They didn’t want to be seen as incapable of handling things. They didn’t to sacrifice success for mental health. Without thinking, I told them that I saw a counselor for anxiety and asked if they thought any of those things were true about me.
The student sat there with their mouth open for a moment and then said, “But you are wonderful and successful and take care of others. I never knew.”
That’s when it hit me. I could let the stigma of mental illness control me, or I could use my own experience as a way to teach and advocate for others. I could hide my own diagnosis and play right into the stereotypes, or I could be loud and proud of my daily struggle and successes with mental health. I could be another reason students try to hide their mental illness, or I could be a reason they reach out for help.
This past fall, I stood in front of the entire student staff of the Residence Life department as a new professional and shared my diagnosis, my treatment, and my experience. I told them about what a panic attack feels like, what it’s like to step foot in a counselor’s office for the first time, and what it’s like to tell someone you have a mental illness. This session came after a number of our residents had been struggling with their own anxiety issues, and I knew it would be a concrete way for our context-driven students to grasp just how important their training was. I was shaking the entire time, but their nods of understanding and support kept me going.
In student affairs, we talk the talk of accepting others and talking about mental health to our students, but in so many cases I’ve seen us fail to walk the walk. We tell colleagues to conceal their mental illness from students at all costs so we can be perceived as “put-together” and an “authority.” For some reason, we think this will command respect. I’m so incredibly guilty of this, I know. But my experience has taught me this isn’t the case. If I can help a student seek the help they need by sharing my own diagnosis and experience, I’m going to do it. We can’t stop the stigma by hiding in the shadows. We CAN stop it by admitting that mental health is something that affects EVERYONE, even student affairs professionals.
Today, I feel lucky to be in a space where my mental health status isn’t considered a weakness, but rather a unique lens to connect with students and understand the importance of mental health education. I’ve been empowered to fight stigma, share my story with students, and also embrace myself. Do I still doubt myself on days and whether I can do my job with anxiety? Yes, absolutely. But I also know I have made it this far, so I can keep going. And I need to – for the students who walk through my door with the same fears I have. I need to keep breaking free of the stigmas and molds.
This is part of our yearly #SACommits series on mental health in Student Affairs. This May, we are exploring what mental illness looks like using different forms of expression – photos, drawings, videos, writing, etc. We hope to create better understanding of what it is like to live with mental illness, in an effort to stomp out stigma. Each week will have a theme -Throughout the lifespan, With Loved Ones, At Work, With Myself. For more information, see the intro post by Kristen Abell. Check out the other posts in this series too! You can also join the conversation by using our unique #SACommits Selfies print outs.