Invalid: Living with Mental Illness in the Higher Education System

Recently, the rate of mental illness (namely generalized anxiety disorder and clinical depression)  in young people has skyrocketed. College students  today are much more likely to show symptoms of mental illness  than previous generations. Statistically, 25% of college students suffer some form of mental illness.  In American  colleges specifically, 44%  have reported having depressive symptoms, while 75%  of them choose not to seek help. Perhaps most importantly, suicide is the third leading cause of death in college students and 80% of people who contemplate/attempt suicide show clear warning signs of self-destructive behavior. While we can’t narrow down exactly what is causing this epidemic, it is apparent that people — myself included — are suffering. Here is a brief description of my personal journey through college with severe depression and generalized anxiety.

1. Attendance Policies are a Living Nightmare

If you or anyone you know suffers from depression, you’re aware of the fact that, some days, you would honestly rather claw your own eyes out and eat them than get out of bed in the morning. You can’t explain it because it will never make any logical sense, but it feels like you’re absolutely numb, stuck in a rut. Motivation is nonexistent and apathy takes over your every waking thought.

Unless you also have anxiety. Then, it’s a matter of which one of your mental illnesses wins that day: the one that makes you care so little that you’d rather die that go to class, or the one that’s so terrified of failure that you feel like your heart will explode if you don’t attend and perform perfectly. How sad is that? Your everyday life is literally in the hands of two opposing disorders going to war inside your head.

But, anyway, the point is, even if you’re a brilliant student and have an ‘A’ performance in the class, you’re still at risk of failing because attendance is somehow more important than your health and your understanding of material. I have yet to fall behind enough in any of my courses to risk even a ‘C’, let alone failure, but that excuse is invalid. Maybe if I were to break my leg or get hit by a car or fall out of a window it would be acceptable, but wanting to slit my wrists isn’t good enough.

2. Being Isolated by Design and Still Upset About Loneliness

When you’re going through a depressive rut — sometimes it’s only a few hours, sometimes a few days, or, in my case, several months — you tend to isolate yourself from other people. In some cases, it’s because you just don’t want to deal with using the energy to socialize, but, in most of my experience, it’s more about not wanting to bring down the group. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said “Well, when you’re in a bad mood, we’re all in a bad mood,” or “You have to think about how you affect other people.”

This point is completely valid, I agree. You can’t only think of yourself. But it does cause a problem when you’re pushing guilt on someone who already probably suffers from self-esteem issues due to their mental illness. Personally, I struggle with intense self-hatred, o telling me that I’m making your life worse only makes me want to disappear that much more. To combat this, I tend to hide away or just become generally very quiet when I’m not feeling well. I don’t want anyone to be bummed out because I can’t seem to get happy.

But then they start wondering where you are and what’s wrong with you. I understand and appreciate their concern, but they’ll never fully understand why I can’t be around them when I’m like this. I don’t trust myself when my apathy is at it’s peak and I’m terrified by how mean I know I could probably be. But, to some people, this excuse is invalid. They always claim that they always enjoy your company just to seem like good people, but we all know it’s not true.

3. Absolutely Nothing is Under Control

Crying fits, panic attacks, sudden body tremors, headaches, constant fatigue and tiredness, apathy, insomnia, hypersomnia. These are just a few examples of the symptoms I experience on a daily basis. I can’t help any of this. These things randomly seem to attack even when there is no logical trigger.

I remember one time, a friend of mine was talking about politics. No big deal. We’re college kids and today’s political climate sucks. Of course we’re talking about it. But she was getting really heated and we disagreed on something. And, even after I had stopped talking altogether, she kept going for a solid five minutes without stopping. My hands started shaking, my head started hurting, my heart started pounding, I couldn’t feel my legs, I couldn’t catch my breath, I was dizzy. The next thing I knew, I was laying down, trying my hardest to just breathe. I was having a panic attack. For no logical reason. Try explaining that to someone who has been fortunate enough to avoid them throughout their life.

I can’t sleep. Nighttime is the worst time for me and I don’t know why. I have to take 20mg of Melatonin just to feel something. Half of the time, that doesn’t work. I lie awake, unable to get comfortable, for hours on end. On average, I go to bed around 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. Typically, I am unable to fall asleep until at lest 5:30. I have 9:00 a.m. class the next morning. Friends wonder why I can stay up so late and how I function on three hours or sleep or less most nights. I can’t explain it. I fell into this routine during my senior year of high school. It’s simply a part of my life now.

But when I get the chance to sleep in, boy do I sleep in. I can’t fall asleep quickly, but once I do, I’m not getting up. I usually wake up every two hours or so — sometimes due to my chronic back pain, sometimes due to nightmares, sometimes for no reason at all — and I continue this routine for as long as I can. Recently, sleeping until 4:00 p.m. on the weekends is normal.

I take frequent naps. My friends constantly tease me for how often I sleep, but I don’t know how to explain to them that I’m always tired and that I know it sounds ridiculous, but I can’t ever seem to get over this fatigue and tiredness that I constantly feel. My mind is constantly in overdrive and I feel like it’s overheating most of the time. Maybe that’s why I have so many headaches, but I don’t know.

4. Talking About it is Frowned Upon

Again, people love to constantly talking about how you’re ruining their good mood whenever you mention something regarding your mental illness. Hell, I’m suicidal. I have been for the past three months. I try to be open about it so no one is shocked when something happens — not necessarily something self-destructive, but anything that could be related to depression.

I’ve never wanted anyone to feel sorry for me, but that seems to be how people will likely view me, as that is how my friends and family viewed me for years. I’ve never wanted the attention. I know that so many people do claim mental illness for attention. I know that for many people, it really is a phase, so how could my family have known? I understand that, but that stigma has made it nearly impossible for anyone to take my illness seriously, even with my medication and medical diagnosis right in front of their face.

On top of that, everyone seems to go crazy if you say the word ‘suicidal.’ I’d like to break that stigma. The truth is, to anyone who is suicidal, while it’s not necessarily okay to feel this way, it is, at least for the time being, a part of who we are. It’s just as much as part of me as my hair color, my IQ, my weight, and so on. I should be aloud to say it just as you should be aloud to state your sexuality or preferred gender or whatever. It shouldn’t be met with all of these stares or people quickly changing the subject and moving on.

And it especially shouldn’t be met with the special voice. You know the one I’m talking about, right? The one where you know they’re just trying to be compassionate, but they’re actually being extremely condescending? I’m not made of glass. I appreciate you trying to be delicate with me, but I’d rather be greeted as “Depressed piece of crap,” or, you know, MY NAME, than anything too sweet with that super special voice.

But, of course, none of it matters. These excuses are invalid.

5. I No Longer Exist for Myself

I’ve said it a few times now, but people love to turn your mental illness into something about them. Period. Whether it’s “Well, don’t do anything because it would make me sad,” or “Don’t talk about it because that’s not fun for me to hear about,” or even the ever-so-frequent “Well, I understand because this one time I *insert-somewhat-related-anecdote-that-is-actually-a-method-of-getting-the-attention-back-to-me-through-potentially-compassionate-and-understanding-dialogue=here*.” This isn’t intentional. No one means to make things worse by saying any of these things, but it does. And confronting them about it is hard, especially when you’ve tried and they’ve never listened.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve casually mentioned suicide — oftentimes while not talking about myself in any way — and have been met with the timeless “It’s so selfish,” argument. You’re right, to a point. Suicide does hurt the people around you in your attempt to end the pain and move on. I’ve always talked myself out of it by saying “It’s the coward’s way out.” In ways, that’s true, and while I find this argument very valid, I’m curious as to why MY mental illness is only a problem when it concerns YOU.

People who are depressed or suicidal should focus on finding help to better their OWN lives, not everyone else’s. Since when did they start living for other people anyway? Of all the things you could say to them: “You have so much to live for,” or “But things will get better for you, they always do in time,” or even “Look at all the things you want to accomplish,” but people still always go for “Look what it will do to the people around you.”

What most people don’t understand is that half of depression — especially if properly paired with anxiety — is caring so much about other people that you hate yourself because you believe that your very existence is hurting them in some way. God knows this is my day to day life. I apologize for talking too loudly; I apologize for not talking at all; I apologize for sleeping; I apologize for being excited; I apologize for being apathetic; I apologize for being happy. I do this all because I am more concerned for other people than I ever have been for myself because I feel that I’m not worthy of my own love. This is my biggest struggle in day to day life, so telling my that me being this way is a problem for you is only adding to that. I truly cannot do anything right.

If the only thing you have to say to someone who is struggling is “It would be better for me if you -,” then you are basically saying that my life, my feelings, and my actions are invalid and will always come in second to you.

6. There is No Escape

No matter how hard you try to explain things to your superiors, no matter how much they seem to understand, it’s rare that they’ll ever fully accept any of this. It’s so much harder to tell the authenticity of mental illness and it’s symptoms than something as visible as a physical disability. That’s true. I hate it, but it’s the truth.

So, because of that, we’re going to suffer. Life will always be harder for us than it will for many other people. We know this, but it’s very hard to accept.

It’s hard to accept that college is, in this generation, pretty much a requirement if you want to enter the workforce and survive and stuff. But, with the way the education system is set up, it’s almost impossible for someone with severe depression and/or anxiety to get through the day, let alone four years. That’s why the college dropout rate is so high. So few universities are actually willing to work with a students crying fits or lack of sleep or random weight loss or inability to go to class everyday.

In my case, I’ve been told that withdrawing may be the best thing for me and that online school might be a better option, but even then, it’s going to be a major challenge for me. I’m not doing it (yet) because I go to an expensive school that my parents put a lot of money in to. They’ve told me that they wouldn’t be disappointed in me if I prioritized my heath, but I know they’re lying — at least partially. I love my parents and they love me and I know they’ve done their best to make sure I turned out okay. I also know that we don’t come from money and that they placed a massive amount of faith in me when they sent me off to such a school. I know they would love me no matter what and that they probably wouldn’t be angry with me, but they’d have to feel a little let down by all of this.

The point is, I want to survive in the real world and, because of that, I’m stuck in a situation that is only making my mental state worse by the day, but I don’t have a choice. Most careers I would go into would produce a very similar result. So many people feel this way and I know I speak for many when I say that we are, at least, according to our current perceptions, completely and utterly helpless.

That adds to all of the outside factors that make our minds function as destructively as they do, but that’s just another invalid excuse. Logic dictates that it’s not the end of the world, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling this way.

7. Not Even Doctors Take You Seriously

Better diet. More exercise. That’s somehow the answer to all of your problems if you ask a physician. Get out of the house more. Talk to people. Everything will be fine.

God, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that — from doctors, parents, teachers, counselors, friends, the internet, etc. — I’d have enough money to pay off my student loans. And trust me, that’s a lot of money.

But, you see, exercise isn’t my problem. Sure, I could definitely use a solid work-out routine and a few more greens in my diet, but that won’t make all of this go away. It’s not going to solve these problems. You know what I need? Medication. You know what a lot of people need? Medication. Why is medication such a dirty word now? Why do people think you’re a violent criminal if you’re taking pills every day? I don’t understand.

But, the fact of the matter is, doctors will always jump to diet and exercise because it’s the easy solution. For everything. Seriously. Go to the doctor for any ailment and they’ll probably start off with those two suggestions before actually evaluating you medically. Mental health is no exception. If anything, these excuses are used more frequently with mental health because you can’t effectively test for it. It’s so much harder to tell — and to treat, admittedly — than most physical illnesses.

So what do physicians do? Diet. Exercise. Because that’s the only solution, apparently.

If your depression/anxiety/mental illness is chronic — especially if it has genetic roots — I have bad news for you. You’re stuck. But you probably already knew that. You literally cannot get out of this no matter how hard you try. There is no cure. There is no winning. There’s only fighting.

But you have to fight. You have to fight for yourself, for your dreams, for all that untapped potential. You have a choice, but the right choice is always to keep fighting. It seems easier to give up, to run away when things get hard, but, no matter how hard they get, the best decision is always to move forward because, while your illness is permanent, your bad spells are temporary. It will never be easy to be alive, but it will be easier.

I know I sound like every loser, motivational speaker, or whatever  when I say this, but you are loved and your life is worth living. You have so much to live for and your world is so full of possibilities. You can’t let your mental illness win, no matter how hard it gets.


– Mary


National Suicide Hotline (USA): 1-800-273-8255