It’s no secret that college students are among the most stressed out people in the world. With the pressure of exams, deadlines, money, jobs and relationships, of course we’re tightly wound. And all of that pressure doesn’t pass by without consequence. “The average age of onset for many mental health conditions is the typical college age range of 18 to 24 years old,” said Courtney Knowles, executive director of The JED Foundation, an organization that aims to improve mental health and prevent suicide in college students.
I was blissfully unaware of how serious the problem was during my first two years of college—I never thought I’d fall into a cycle of stress-induced anxiety and depression. But, one Sunday night, as I tried to punch out a criminology paper, I cracked.
In high school, I was never the overachieving type. Schoolwork came easily (for the most part), I didn’t play a sport and my parents never forced me to work a part-time job. This all changed when I entered college; I was faced with tougher classes, limited funds and above else, I realized that the transition made me a much smaller fish in a bigger pond.
Suddenly, being surrounded by high-achieving peers created a hyper-competitive environment— if I didn’t stop floating and learn how to swim, I’d quickly be eaten alive. Old habits like doing my seventh period calculus homework during sixth period history just couldn’t cut it anymore. I needed to crank up my efforts if I ever wanted to make it in the real world. After all, I was literally surrounded by my future competition.
The more I made myself do, the more I realized my own capabilities. With every semester, I packed more onto my plate. I came in as a freshman creative writing major with a receptionist job and no extra-curriculars. By my junior year, I had passed French proficiency, leased an apartment, declared two majors and a minor, joined the marching and basketball bands, worked multiple jobs and began training as a peer writing consultant. While I prided myself in my ability to keep my shit together, on the inside I was crumbling.
My roommate found me on the floor of our apartment in a fit of tears, surrounded by stacks of criminology articles and scribbled notebook pages. She eventually talked me down from my anxiety attack and convinced me to see a counselor.
That night, I emailed my prof requesting an extension on my paper. I tried to keep the email as professional as I could, masking my feeling of desperate humiliation in reaching out for support. I had never asked for any kind of accommodation in college, save for the day I had laryngitis and carried a whiteboard to all my classes. An extension felt like cheating, like a last-ditch request for a handout. I was an adult now. If there was one thing I didn’t want to do, it was ask for help.
I convinced myself taking that one Monday off would restore me back to full mental health. Needless to say, I fell back into my old habits of expecting too much of myself, and I quickly spiraled back into depression. Luckily, I took the needed steps toward recovery—getting referred to a psychiatrist and scheduling an appointment with a long-term therapist—before I hit rock bottom again.
My professors were surprisingly helpful and understanding when I finally opened up to them about going through a rough time. One even pulled me aside after class to check in on how I was doing and let me know that everything was going to be OK (spoiler: he was right). He told me, “You are student second and a person first.”
Though I’d felt like just another number in the system, he reminded me that there’s no shame in reaching for a hand if I started to sink. Could I have finished that semester with a stronger GPA had I not taken some extra time for myself? Sure. But I don’t even want to know what further damage I would have done to my mental state. Sometimes a little R&R is more than just deserved: It’s necessary.