We talk a lot on this campus, about a lot of topics. However, I feel like there are some topics we don’t talk nearly enough about – one of them is mental health. Besides getting the regular email about the psychiatrist on campus on Fridays, and joking about “November depression”, we seem to overlook this topic entirely or limit our conversations about it for comfort and politeness. On the other hand, from what I have observed and from the conversations I have had with friends and almost-strangers, I can safely say that a good number of people on campus are struggling – albeit in a functional way.
A reason for this is the fact that mental illness is not visible in most cases – or it is easy to disguise. Everyone is tired, everyone is stressed, and most people can disguise their unhealthy situation in this atmosphere of normalized overexertion and fashionable youthful nihilism. It is entirely possible that one may not even be aware of their condition, let alone others’, until it gets to a point where it is unmanageable and professional help is necessary.
I partially speak out of experience – it would be almost impossible for any of my friends on campus (even very close friends) to notice that I am (sometimes/partially/recovering-ly/whatever) bulimic, unless I told them or allowed them to notice.
First of all, I do not look like it. People have said this to my face upon finding out – I would never have guessed! – code for “You don’t look like it.” I have never been anywhere near skinny in the more than 5 years I have struggled with disordered eating – I have always been back and forth between average and overweight. In fact, more than half of people with eating disorders do not look like it – BMI (which is not an accurate measure of anything) is only a diagnosis criterion for anorexia nervosa – and most people are diagnosed with EDNOS/OSFED (eating disorder not otherwise specified or otherwise specified eating or feeding disorder). Secondly, secrecy is a part of the disorder itself. Usually, the person is in denial about the disorder to an extent. It took me a year to admit that this was an Actual Problem and not some kind of hobby, it was a shock to my 14-year-old self to notice that I fit every criteria, and it is still a struggle for my somewhat-grown-up self to talk about this issue or even admit this – one of the reasons why this article is anonymous.
It would also be very difficult for anyone to notice any other mental health problem I or another may be experiencing – I cannot name anything because I am not officially diagnosed due to a complicated set of reasons – but mental illness is very easy to disguise as a natural consequence of our work rhythm, physical illness, or simply sleep deprivation (which actually may be the case – but perhaps arising from an underlying problem like anxiety or depression). Even the physical symptoms – perhaps because I did not “look like it”, no doctor could explain my constant headaches and dizziness arising from a combination of hunger, overexertion and electrolyte imbalance.
My point is – we often overlook our problems and those of our friends because we consider it normal to be tired often, to be stressed constantly or to not have energy. It is really hard to distinguish at what point it becomes unhealthy, or at what point it starts having detrimental effects on one’s life. We even glorify this self-sacrifice sometimes, or we consider it necessary. This is an esteemed institution, and it is considered normal for students to work hard.I believe that the student profile that would choose to apply to, and be admitted into this kind of institution would be functional under stress, would be able to overlook mental or physical health concerns until they got the job done. But then, there is another assignment, and another, and then exams and then a paper and then an internship and so on – but until when can we put off taking a much needed break or seeking help? Hopefully not until a breakdown.
As I said, it is hard to distinguish between a mental illness and normal, natural feelings one gets through life. We should keep in mind that mental illnesses and diagnostic criteria are also defined by people and change over time. The illnesses get recategorized, the criteria are modified, new illnesses are defined or two diagnoses are merged under one name.
The way we define normal and pathological are not solid or God-given, and we need to be aware of our own feelings and experiences, and trust our intuition.
Do I need a break? Am I putting too much stress onto myself? Is this detrimental to my health? What are my priorities? We need to take care of ourselves – as unrealistic as it may be in this environment of competition and pressure. Maybe this is a sign that the environment itself is not healthy.
Another thing related to the way we define mental health and mental illness is the way we define its solution. Although there is a biochemical component to mental illnesses, it is not fully known why they occur, why some people are more prone to it than others, and how our social lives affect our brain. The reasons behind mental illness change from person to person – it is known, for example, that trauma modifies the way our brain works, and this may directly be one of the reasons behind disorders such as borderline personality disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. Trauma can even be passed on through generations. It is also known that social isolation and pressure – the pressure to be successful, for example – or financial stress, the experience of racial discrimination or being a woman or being LGBT, are causes or risk factors for mental health problems.
Since there are a variety of biological, personal and social factors behind mental illness, and the way we (and mental health professionals, the psychiatric system, etc) define it is largely constructed, there should be a variety of solutions, individually defined. For some people, full recovery is not an option and focusing on managing the symptoms would be more helpful. For some people, it can take time but it is a realistic goal. Some people improve greatly with medication and need to, or choose to take it. Some people do not. Some people choose to get professional help, some people cannot do that. For some people, things like yoga, meditation, exercise or eating in a healthier way helps a lot, and for some people it would not be helpful at all.
I am going to speak from experience again. When I try to speak to people about my struggle with, let’s say, mood swings or depressive episodes, unregulated emotions or whatever, I almost always get the response, “Have you seen a doctor about this?”. The thing is – I can’t. There are a set of practical and personal reasons making it impossible for me to seek professional help. One thing I can do is talk to people I trust, though. For example, when I am having a crisis, let’s say when I was crying in my bed last evening around 7 pm, after my mood dropped with the blink of an eye, the only thing I could think was, “I need someone, I need to hug someone and talk to them” – it is the only thing that would make me feel better until it passed. I realized that although I had close and trusted friends, I could not open up to anyone and ask for this. The feeling of loneliness made it even worse.
I think that should be a thing we do for each other, not immediately suggesting that one sees a doctor but asking if we can do anything, regularly checking on each other, making it clear that we care. Of course, it is very important that one prioritizes oneself and sets clear boundaries, for the sake of everyone involved, so that an unhealthy dynamic is not created.
Still, we should normalize asking for help, normalize asking for distraction instead of normalizing functioning despite everything, strict individualism and overworking oneself.
We should not think in strict terms of “ill” and “well” – mental illness is like a sliding scale with many factors influencing whether a person is “ill” or not. It is not a black and white issue – there is no magical threshold one crosses and suddenly becomes mentally ill. You cannot go and cure your friend, but you can make it easier for them and they can make it easier for you. I am not trying to make a point about ending stigma around mental illness – which is also important – but I am calling you to reconsider mental health and priorities, take care of yourself and connect rather than compartmentalize things. Life does not exist in neat boxes of “school”, “friends”, “health” and so on, aspects of our lives are all interrelated, we are not meant to live in vacuums or live around sharp lines, and everything is complicated – not in a bad way.