When I look back on my experience in college and graduate school this time of year in the fall semester — the last few weeks leading to finals — and try to consider what it is like for college students now, I often think about just how little I understood about mental health as an undergraduate in 2011.
I do not think I ever truly realized the emotional weight of stress, anxiety and loneliness I was piling on internally as I was shot-gunning scalding-hot ramen noodles at 3:00 a.m., ignoring texts from a girlfriend or close friends because I was “busy” and studying for classes whose subjects I knew well, but whose finals exam I was deathly afraid of because I am truly terrible at exams. Even as I somehow found myself in these situations every year for a whopping five years in college, I never took the advice of better time management, or whatever it was my college advisor said and my mental health took a toll. I never fully comprehended the emotional weight I piled on myself while making poor decisions in college.
These are decisions that seem silly and absurd to me now six months after graduating law school; decisions like waiting to the last minute to study, skipping class and especially being so hard on myself anytime I felt like I didn’t do well enough - which was all the time. If you had approached me at 3:00 a.m. in the library two years ago, with every hair on the back-of-my-head sticking straight up, physically shaking from the amount of energy drinks I had consumed, I would tell you that this is just what being a student was about.
Honestly, from what I remember when I was truly stressed, anxious and sleep deprived in college, there was not a word any person — even those closest to me — could say to get me to realize anything. You could not get me to realize what I already knew but, like most difficult emotions, had buried deeply in the back of my mind — that the lack of sleep, anxiety, pressure I put on myself and strained relationships with close friends and family were detrimental to my health and well-being.
This is all what I felt internally — you wouldn’t know it if you saw me at work, if we hung out or if we studied together. I loved college and law school, but the private battles I fought in my own head often left me exhausted, stressed and uncertain in ways I only know now I didn’t have to put myself through.
My personal experience was being too stubborn and proud to ask for help in counseling or therapy, too much in that stressful anxiety-driven-survival-mode to understand the way I handled difficult emotions — the avoidance I developed from growing up being told to “suck it up” without ever receiving genuine advice dealing with feelings of stress, anxiety, loss and grief — was detrimental to me. If I’m being honest, stress, anxiety and loneliness — even with supportive friends and family —just seemed like what it was to be a student. I was fully resigned to accept that I both deserved and was destined to feel as miserable privately as I often did during that part of my life.
I didn’t know what I do now about mental health. If I buried my emotions without addressing them, like deep anxiety and grief or trauma, I was burying them alive. They piled on as weight until they spill out of that buried spot in the back of my head. And maybe I could have lived my whole life weighted down by these buried emotions, stressed, strained and not knowing. But I am very grateful I do not have to imagine a world as privately miserable as I could make for myself in college and graduate school.
If I did not write this, you, most of my close friends, even my family, would not know I would grind my teeth worrying about grades in law school so hard from stress they broke, that I have a great deal of gratitude for counseling services and therapy for getting through my final years of school.
What I should have been taught much earlier, something that I learned at 24 in law school, is there was nothing more important for me to learn than a sense of emotional intelligence — knowing how to handle and understand my emotions as they come, rather than when they begin to negatively affect my life from being unconsciously buried. Because what I understand now is that the emotional weight did not come from the naturally stressful aspects of this time of year in college, near finals — the natural stress just so often would be the tipping point for the emotional aspects of my life I had always ignored addressing.
There is a reason I write a column like this almost every year, a reason I put my stubborn pride to look strong and confident aside to describe to you my experience in college and graduate school.
According to the Center for Collegiate Mental health, there has been a significant increase in the utilization of college counseling centers across the country. You can see that yourself now trying to schedule an appointment with Student Counseling services. A recent Cigna survey cited college students ages 18 through 22 years old as the self-reported loneliest generation of Americans today. We can call this a crisis, call the increase in seeking help for mental health a new generational problem. But, maybe we can just call it progress.
College students are seeking help for mental health more than any generation before. They ask themselves more about how and why they want to live their life, discuss how important close relationships are and emphasize well-being in ways I wish my parents’ generation had grown up knowing before.
If you are worried about their generation, if you are worried about stress, anxiety and loneliness yourself, understand that the generation in college now is not complaining about mental health — they are acknowledging it and the world they were born into in ways that are beneficial to everyone.
They did not build the social media that stresses them, did not create the system of health care or college that can leave them struggling in debt and they certainly did not create the rigid 9-5 work week we are just beginning to question.
It is because of these questions I knew to seek help for my own issues much later in graduate school than many of them know now in college. So, to the stressed, anxious and lonely college student, know that you are far from alone in mental health. To me, the generation right before you, I am just thankful you are brave enough to keep asking the questions ourselves and the world will most only ever keep privately in the back of their mind.