By Chay Tanchanco, PPS, AMFT
Going to school at the University of California, Berkeley was my dream come true. Filled with promise and high hopes, I entered the gates of one of the highest achieving universities in the country -- and also some of the highest statistics for anxiety and depression.
Various articles ranging from the time I was a shiny new freshman in 2007 have repeatedly proclaimed the increasing need for mental health support for undergraduates to graduate students alike, not only at UC Berkeley but across the country.
In a special edition of Time magazine on “Mental Health: A New Understanding”, Katie Reilly writes:
“From 2009 to 2015, the number of students visiting counseling centers increased by about 30% on average, while university enrollment grew by less than 6%… In the spring of 2017, nearly 40% of college students said they had felt so depressed within the past 12 months that it was difficult for them to function, and 61% of students said they had felt ‘overwhelming anxiety’ in the same period.”
There is no question the pressures of today’s society weigh heavily on the shoulders of our emerging adult population, not to mention the crucial personal responsibilities of finding oneself, enjoying one’s youth, and figuring out how to maintain healthy relationships.
In the winter of 2007, I was well on my way toward becoming a depression statistic. I used to be surrounded by friends and family who loved me and had known me since I was big enough to hold a pencil; now, I wandered alone to my dorm in the dark after a late night study session. I had rooted my identity in my perfect grades since I was in Kindergarten; I was now clinging to the edge of a 2.3 GPA and sinking fast. I was used to social ease and aptitude; now, every time I tried to enter a club or a social group, I felt awkward, alone, and irredeemably unworthy.
If someone would have approached me and asked me, “Are you depressed?” I might have laughed. At the time, there was much less media exposure to mental health issues, though they were very much on the rise. I still had a “dumb” phone, so I was not yet in the habit of googling symptoms until I was convinced I had a life-threatening disease. Although the words “depression” and “anxiety” are widely spread throughout our social vernacular now, the fact remains that more than half of our nation’s college students desperately need to be reaching out to someone when they need help or when they see someone in need.
I wish I could say that I got the help that I needed because I sought it out at a counseling center, or that someone who cared about me brought me to get help. If any type of student could have known the benefits of mental health help, it should have been me -- I was studying cognitive science, after all! But it never even crossed my mind. And colleges across the nation are still seeking solutions for a compounding population with the same limitations of resources. I doubt the counseling center would have taken me very seriously; I was isolated, but I wasn’t experiencing suicidal ideation or extreme mood swings or abusing substances; I just wasn’t high enough of a risk. But if left untreated, it may have absolutely become so.
The reason I didn’t enter the depression statistic?
I went to the hospital in the Spring of 2008 for an autoimmune disorder after being suddenly paralyzed with no cause. I couldn’t walk, couldn’t hold a pencil, couldn’t sit up on my own. I had to withdraw from the semester, and the lovely friends and family that were far away came flooding back into my life. While relearning how to walk, I had the opportunity to re-prioritize what was important to me, what it meant to succeed and to reconnect with social support. Little did I know that my journey into the depths of my mental health had only just begun; but for now, I had enough to maintain and get myself to graduation.
Many students are out there right now, unsure of the support that they need, struggling to find that window of breathing room. Many of them would rather not get an autoimmune disorder to take a break, just someone to notice their pain and help them recognize that they aren’t alone. Our society depends on the foundations we place in the hands of those joining the workforce; those foundations depend heavily on mental health, whether we realize it or not.
College is both an extremely liberating and vulnerable time for all who experience it. Each person, in this time of our lives when shame and imperfections are exposed, need support. Finding mental health help should be comprehensive and, frankly, common sense.