Your Mental Health Comes First
During my junior year in college, I found myself in group therapy. Each Monday, my group met with two staff members from the on-campus counseling center. They would guide us through breathing exercises before we dove into conversation. Surprisingly, Mondays became my favorite day. But it wasn’t so easy to get to this point. Neither was taking care of my own well-being.
Prior to participating in group therapy, no one knew that I frequented the counseling center, except for one professor and a handful of close friends. A huge stigma existed on my college campus—and frankly most campuses around the country—that there is weakness in asking for help.
At my university, there was an assumption that my peers and I were high achieving, exemplary students. During my freshman year, I was in a study group with students from my introductory economics course when I realized I just wasn’t going to understand core concepts, no matter how hard I tried or how long I studied. Everyone else in my group expressed that the material was easy to them. It was then that I jokingly asked if they were all valedictorians in high school with perfect SAT scores. No one laughed – their silence confirmed it all. I felt ashamed that I had neither attached to my name. I felt like a fraud for getting into such a challenging school.
I remember going through the rest of college feeling like I didn’t belong there. Most of my peers at my prestigious university appeared to have it all together. I put in countless hours studying in the library – sometimes forgetting to take breaks or even eat meals – for fear that I wasn’t doing enough. The culture on campus, combined with expectations I had for myself, created an intense pressure.
During my sophomore year, my boyfriend at the time threatened to harm himself. He had plans to end his life by suicide. I had never personally known anyone living with a diagnosed mental health condition, so his call for help shook me to my core. Throughout the rest of our relationship, I found myself becoming a crutch. Our relationship was far from healthy, as I would study for exams and write papers, all the while I’d constantly worry about receiving a phone call with terrible news of his passing. I developed a sense of dread anytime my phone rang. Some days, I’d find myself getting rides from friends (and once I had a car), driving to his apartment to check on him after he’d been impossible to reach on the phone for weeks on end. Most of the time I felt alone in my constant pursuit to make sure he did not kill himself. His life became something I felt responsible for. I felt anxious each day. Nevertheless, I busied myself with a rigorous course load, extracurricular activities, volunteering and an on-campus job. If I filled my day, it would mean less free time to worry about him. I honestly stopped taking care of my own personal well-being.
After confiding in a professor, I was advised to go to the counseling center. I was afraid to go. I asked myself what people would think of me. When I finally decided to go, I was appalled to realize that I couldn’t speak to someone right away. Since I didn’t appear to be in crisis, I was told to come back later. And when I finally did get to speak with someone, I was unsure how my sessions were helping me. I ended up returning to the counseling center sporadically for individual sessions.
Then one day, I got the courage to tell one of my best friends that I was going to the counseling center, but without much success. She asked me if I had considered group therapy, which I hadn’t. I had been at the university for over two years and I never even knew it was an option. I eventually got on the wait list for group therapy, and after waiting an entire semester, I finally found myself meeting once a week with peers. Though the wait was extremely frustrating, finally getting the help I needed was life-changing.
Looking back, I really wish I had known sooner about the resources available to me. And though there was a delay, I really did benefit from group therapy. It helped strengthen my confidence in opening up to others. It’s been almost five years since undergrad. I now work for a mental health non-profit, which was something I hadn’t anticipated back in college. I am more open about encouraging others to get help and I share my personal story with anyone who is willing to listen. It’s work I’m passionate about, because I know that if I had just known that it was okay to get help, I would have done so sooner. My friends are more open with me about their mental health. Some even ask me for tips or resources when someone they know is experiencing suicidal ideation. These days, I feel more equipped to provide support.
It took years to get to this point, but ultimately, I’ve found that I must address my own mental health first before helping anyone else.
So, to those who are the support for someone with a mental health condition: Remember that your mental health comes first. One cannot pour from an empty glass. I encourage you to nurture and prioritize your personal well-being. That way, if the opportunity comes to help and support someone else, you are ready.
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