My Mental Health Journey in College

Trigger warning: I go into extensive detail about my experiences with self-harm (cutting), panic attacks, grief, and clinical depression. I understand these may be extremely sensitive topics for some individuals, so if you don’t feel comfortable reading about it, feel free to sit out on this blog post. I’ll return to much happier content in the near future!

May is one of my favorite times of the year as it marks Mental Health Awareness Month! Mental health has always been one of my favorite subjects to cover as no one really talks about it, and for many people (including those I love and care about deeply), it can carry a negative stigma.

While I used to be more vocal about my experiences with depression, anxiety, and self-harm, recently I’ve found it slightly more challenging to speak about my struggles whilst in college, in large part due to my fear of being perceived as a “failure” or as “vulnerable.” The pressure to be a “perfect” student and the stresses that come with trying to demonstrate myself as an equally competent student as others at a predominantly white institution have caused an enormity of hardships that I initially had a difficult time adjusting to.

Nonetheless, I think it’s important that I give another update on my mental health – as well as a summary of my mental health journey as a first-year college student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo – since I haven’t really touched on it on my blog in a couple months. In doing so, I hope my story helps anyone feeling the same way, and that I can initiate a broader discussion about mental health not just on my blog, but also via social media, within my campus community, and beyond.

To condense my story in a way that’s digestible, I’ve decided to divide my mental health journey into the three quarters I’ve been in college thus far: fall, winter, and spring.


Fall quarter

The day I moved out for college, I was incredibly excited for the road to come. Not only was this my first time moving out of the house, but I would be the first person in my immediate family to move out for college.

With that, I came to understand, there were a lot of financial pressures placed on my parents’ shoulders as well as a multitude of pressures placed on myself to perform well academically and to demonstrate my competence as a second-generation Filipina woman at a predominantly white university next to classmates who have probably visited more countries than I could name and have probably more money than I could possibly comprehend.

The first week of fall quarter, I was sitting in one of my Honors classes reviewing a 15-paged syllabus. Even though this was just meant to be a brief review, I could feel the onset of my first panic attack of the quarter brewing.

As soon as the class session ended (in which we literally just reviewed the syllabus), I bolted outside the classroom with tears streaming down my face. I called one of my friends on the phone and told her I already felt overwhelmed and that I didn’t deserve to be at Cal Poly, let alone in the University Honors Program.

This was my first anxiety attack of the school year, and it was barely the first week of classes.

By week three of fall quarter, I relapsed. I’ve had an eight-year-long journey with self-mutilation that I thought was long gone, but in college, it came back full force.

I used self-harm as an attempt to destress and to cope with feeling overwhelmed by the new environment that was Cal Poly. Though I would consider myself a quick adapter, learning to adjust to the rapid pace of the quarter system was tough, especially since my high school used the semester system.

Eventually nervous (or mental) breakdowns became a weekly occurrence. I acquired an average of 5 hours of sleep each night, and I relied on weekend frat parties and self-mutilation to cope with the intense academic pressures I faced.

Unsurprisingly, my mental state exacerbated. I was cutting myself on a nearly daily basis. I was ditching class. I felt zero motivation to complete my assignments or to do the readings. It was hard to get out of bed. I depended on deleterious amounts of caffeine each day and night to get by. I didn’t know how to cope, or to whom I could speak about my struggles.

To make matters worse, everybody around me seemed to be thriving. All my classmates appeared to be performing well academically, boasting their nearly perfect midterm exam grades or pridefully declaring their goals of achieving a 4.0 their first quarter of college. I was envious and frustrated that I couldn’t be exactly like my peers. I compared myself to everyone around me, even though I knew they came from different upbringings that have possibly prepped them better for the academic rigors of college.

There were a number of times I felt like transferring schools. There were times I wanted to drop out of the Honors program. There were days I considered merely passing my classes rather than actually trying to get an A or a B in them.

Eventually I got tired of feeling this way. I asked my roommate at the time to hide my scissors. I called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline multiple times each week. I tried scheduling an appointment with Cal Poly’s Counseling Services, but the next available appointment was two weeks away, which is way too long for someone seeking immediate assistance.

I ended the quarter feeling slightly better, but not seeking as much help as I would have liked. I got my first B in a class, and my GPA wasn’t sufficient to place me on the Dean’s List. Regardless, I was proud to have made the decision to try to stop cutting myself.


Winter quarter

While San Luis Obispo was rainy and cloudy for the vast majority of winter quarter, those 10 weeks were a much less despondent time for me.

I didn’t have my first nervous breakdown of the quarter until week 6. I relapsed the subsequent week, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stay sober for longer than two weeks.

Later I learned from personal experience and the experiences of my peers that on-campus counseling appointments were nearly impossible to book. I knew I needed to go to therapy, but I didn’t make searching for local therapists a priority. I felt too fearful to ask my parents for their health insurance information because I didn’t want to worry my family, nor did I want to give them the impression that I was miserable in college. I was too scared to ask for help, which ultimately led to my mental health declining faster.

By the end of winter quarter, however, I felt a little happier as a result of implementing a slightly better self-care routine and solidifying a support system comprised of my closest friends in college. I made the Dean’s List and I had stopped partying as much as I did fall quarter. I returned home from spring break, my parents still unaware of my struggles in school.


Spring quarter (including today)

The very first day of spring quarter, I found out news that resulted in me feeling helpless and sad for the entire first week.

The following week, I relapsed again. Staying sober grew increasingly difficult, and I had no plans of stopping my addiction in the foreseeable future. Self-mutilation became my number one coping mechanism. I knew it was wrong, but it became a source of comfort, even if it wasn’t ideal.

Each week my mental health got progressively worse. College became a matter of learning how to survive each week rather than enjoying the beautiful spring weather or reveling in the new job I had just gotten. I didn’t want to socialize, nor did I have the time to do so.

The past weekend, I learned that two people from my hometown, both of whom were dear to my heart, passed away suddenly. It was my first time experiencing the loss of someone I knew and loved, and the fact that this was also my first time grieving while in college made it even harder to bear. I heard about both losses in a span of less than 12 hours.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I was hurting myself often, I was calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline almost every week, and I felt overwhelmed by the workload from my classes and my job. I never wanted to leave my bed. I felt lethargic all the time. I slept anywhere and everywhere I could. I lost all motivation to do homework, hang out with friends, and even get food. I was angry with the universe for dumping these hardships on me all at once. I was bitter that no one reached out to me to ask if I was OK.

I reached my breaking point. Last Friday, I called my dad asking if I could use our health insurance to seek off-campus therapy. It took a lot of courage, but I knew I put it off for way too long. I needed help immediately.

Surprisingly, my dad was incredibly understanding. He told me that he would tell my mom, and my mom reached out to me minutes later. She gave me advice on how to cope with grief, and eventually I opened up to her, which is something I had never envisioned myself doing my first year of college. I spent such a long time constructing a fake wall around myself, a facade of a strong and independent college student who didn’t need her family for emotional support, that breaking down those walls to my mom made me feel simultaneously weak and strong.

Many tears later, I called the offices of five local therapists who accept my family’s insurance. I ended up scheduling an appointment with the first therapist to call me back. I spoke with her last night – my first time going to therapy after almost a year – and I walked out of her office feeling amazing, as if a heavy weight was lifted from my shoulders.

It’s currently week 6 of spring quarter, and I am feeling significantly better than how I felt at the start of college. I’m still grieving, I’m still struggling, but today I’m officially one week sober and gradually finding better ways to cope with stress.

College was never meant to be easy. As someone who has struggled with severe depression, incessant panic attacks, and the urge to cut, school will always be a mental and physical battleground for me. But I’m slowly learning to reach out more when I need help, to employ healthier coping mechanisms when I’m in emotional distress, and to establish a work-play balance that fits into my daily and weekly schedule as a busy college student.

If you’re in college and struggling with mental illness(es), know you aren’t alone. There are a plethora of on- and off-campus resources available to you 24/7. I recommend saving the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) on your phone so you have it ready at all times. I’ve also found that fostering a support system of your most trusted friends or professors in college makes a world of a difference. (I’ve created a solid friend group of four individuals who have been at my beck and call when I truly needed someone to talk to, for which I am eternally thankful.)

If your top choice of self-care is to go to a therapist once a week, schedule an appointment. If you prefer to spend quality time with your loved ones, make that a priority. If you need time to lay in bed all day and sleep, don’t feel guilty in saying “No” to people who ask to make plans with you.

Mental Health Awareness Month is a gentle reminder to everyone to take care of yourself when you genuinely need it. It’s not selfish; it’s necessary, especially in the increasingly competitive and rapidly changing world we live in today. I wish you the best of luck in your personal mental health journey, and I have faith you will get through whatever you’re feeling right now.

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