One in five college students will be affected by anxiety or depression during their undergraduate career.
On an average day, UCSB students deal with a host of stressors including demanding classes, internships, rent payments, and interpersonal relationships. Weekends are an endless blur of parties and desperate attempts to catch up on sleep and school work. We are expected to know our career aspirations and how to fulfill them, all while trying to figure out how to grocery shop.
In this context, it’s no surprise that mental illness is so prevalent among college students. Many struggle in silence, drowning in a sea of happy faces and social media posts with no one to validate their experiences.
The following vignettes were written by UCSB students about their experiences with mental health. They represent only a small portion of the diverse scope of mental health struggles that are all too common at universities. It is crucial to bring visibility to these stories and others like them, and for students to know that they do not carry these burdens alone.
These stories contain topics including depression, suicide and drug addiction that may be sensitive to some readers.
I never thought that mental health issues would affect me. A significant number of friends had confessed their suicidal thoughts and intentions to me many times over the course of my life, starting in seventh grade.
When my own depression hit, it was of a different nature: It crept up on me slowly, and I tried to brush it off as no big deal. I couldn’t be depressed if I didn’t want to die, right? I felt like I was living in a life that wasn’t my own. Every morning I wished I hadn’t woken up, and I began to isolate myself from the people who loved me. I felt like my issues weren’t legitimate enough to warrant help; there were no major problems in my life…maybe I was just being overly dramatic.
Things came to a head when I found myself sobbing in my bathroom on the first day of Fall Quarter for no reason in particular.
Seeking professional help was a big step for me. No matter how much I preached about the de-stigmatization of mental health issues, I walked by the C.A.P.S. building six times before working up the nerve to go inside. Seeing a therapist was a really important step in feeling like myself again, but it couldn’t fix all of my problems.
I was reluctant to admit that this depression had actually altered my brain chemistry, but with the support of friends, family and my doctors, I was able to recognize that medication was the logical next step. I sat in my childhood bedroom on the first night of spring break staring at a fresh, unopened bottle of Prozac in my lap with a renewed sense of hope.
As I swallowed the first pill on the road to reclaiming myself, I couldn’t help but wonder if it could actually work, or if it would just make me some emotionless zombie. As I finish my second month of antidepressants, I have seen a notable change in my life. Medication isn’t a magical fix, and pulling myself out of the hole I fell into has been an exhausting process, but I know that I am a better person for it.
“You know you’re being a c*nt.”
I stared at the text in disbelief. Nobody had ever called me that before. It was hurtful and shocking to be called that by my closest friend.
To stave off the waterworks, I took a deep breath and tried to tell myself that she didn’t mean it; she was probably just having a bad spell. Maybe she was off her meds. Or maybe she was fighting with her family again. Either way, I’m not a c*nt…right?
Being her best friend was like being blindfolded on a rollercoaster. Her moods seesawed erratically; I never knew which version I was going to get. I’d come over to bake cookies and watch TV, and everything would be great. Then, without warning, a whole week would go by without anyone seeing or hearing from her.
Having never personally struggled with mental health, I didn’t understand what was happening at first. All I knew was that she was going through a lot and needed someone to lean on. A small, naive part of me believed that I could support her in a way that pills could not, just by being a good listener.
Things got worse as the year dragged on. I struggled constantly with the knowledge that, as an unlicensed 14-year-old, I was incapable of giving her the help she needed. Yet I couldn’t stand the thought of being a bad friend. I was at a complete loss for what to do.
At some point, her mental health issues started bleeding into mine. Every time she had a panic attack and I couldn’t calm her down, I took it personally. Much harder to cope with was the way she treated me when she was down. She alternated between lashing out and making excuses without really apologizing. My problems were never as important as hers; my panic attacks were “really nothing,” which only increased their frequency.
Friendship is supposed to be a two-way street and ours had become something of a cul-de-sac. Every time I tried to talk to her, I felt like I was talking to a wall. Every time I needed her, she wasn’t there for me — partially because she couldn’t and partially because she wouldn’t. I was overwhelmed by guilt and confusion for not knowing which it was.
Cutting toxic relationships out of your life, as the saying goes, is easier said than done. Mental health illnesses blur the line between healthy and unhealthy relationships, between caring for others and taking care of yourself. When does a rough patch become a need to jump ship?
I grew up fat and depressed. Now, I’m only the latter, but being a child who was consistently told she would “definitely thin out when you hit a growth spurt” didn’t help much in the self-esteem department.
I had a friend once turn to me in the cafeteria during lunch in fifth grade and ask me what size my shirt was. It was a simple question really, something I have a trained answer for now, but growing up as child twice the size of her peers, it was far from a curt reply of small, medium or large.
I have a distinct memory of walking through Target with my mom. I was nine or 10. We passed by the women’s section and a mannequin was wearing the same shirt as me. It was blue with yellow flowers and white hummingbirds on it; Mom gave it to me for Christmas. I loved it and wore it as often as it was clean. A woman in her 30s picked one of my shirts off the rack. I tugged on my mom’s shirt sleeve and asked to leave. I never wore the shirt again.
My mom would console me by saying I was just “big boned” or that I had “strong legs” like her, but she still took me to Lindora and to nutritionists anyway. The doctors said I was in the 98th percentile, but my friends would ensure me that I was “not fat.”
All I could do was avoid junior guards, hoping that the other kids would never see me in a swimsuit. I always loved the ocean, though.
I went on weight watchers Weight Watchers the summer before 7th grade. I didn’t want to hate myself or to be to be offered the information that I am “not fat” — mostly, I didn’t want the new kids to think I was ugly or uncool.
Today I just make self-deprecating comments about my body, laugh about the struggle of growing up around model-like people and have panic attacks on Halloween only to end up texting that friend who asked me what size my shirt was in fifth grade because I still think of that question.
For me, the subliminal promises of safety and understanding I made to my sister were the ones that chained me to the guilt of my own perceptions. At the end of the day, I was never as strong as I wanted to be. I was never as strong as I needed to be. Realistically, there was nothing more I could do, but when your sister is a bipolar heroin addict, what’s realistic doesn’t always seem reasonable. Someone who’s a shot away from the death they’ve always wanted isn’t always looking for realistic, either.
When people ask me what my sister is up to or how she is, I always have an internal battle trying to decide whether or not to tell them she’s a heroin addict now. Sometimes when I say it aloud, it comes off as nonchalant and everyone immediately feels uncomfortable and like my family and I are hopeless. I guess I don’t know if we are, if that’s what it’s called. You just eventually grow to a level of acceptance when the dependency reaches the stage it has with my sister.
It isn’t nonchalant — it just is what it is. It’s normalizing to be able to talk about those affected by substance dependency. Surprise! The opioid epidemic is real, and I know there are other families struggling through the same situation as mine. Being the sibling of a drug addict comes with its own consequential decisions.
Sometimes the physical and emotional exhaustion was the thing I found myself trying to hide from. Sometimes it was the emotional and physical pain I needed to hide from. I was always told it could be worse, and it very well could be, but it is important to validate your feelings. Feeling the pain — that’s brave. Grieving and picking up the pieces of what’s left sometimes provides some semblance of hope to move forward.
The vice principal called me into her office. “You’ve passed the threshold of absences for juvenile delinquency, and I am assigning you detention every day for the next two weeks. Skip two more days, and you are truant.”
Instead of asking why I was ditching school, I was made a suspect. It decided for me that I was a delinquent who saw no value in an education.
“I don’t understand why you are so careless. You are wasting everything that you have worked so hard for.” What I knew then but didn’t have the words to say was that you could have so much to live for and still feel like dying. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, so I just stayed away.
“Did you skip class today? The the school called.” I froze. “It must be a mistake, I’ll fix it tomorrow,” I lied. I didn’t think for a second about being honest about my depression. I wouldn’t have been believed.
It just didn’t fit the script. How could I, an honors student, an overachiever, a “success,” ever feel like throwing it all away? I didn’t have the emotional skill set to handle what I was feeling, and I didn’t know who or what could help. What I needed wasn’t something I could read in a book.
The irate administrator ended up saving me. “After 20 days of absences we will send a letter home, and you’re at 19.” I panicked. I need to go to school for a least a week to make a plan, I thought. Then I would make my decision.
On a dark, rainy Thursday afternoon, my English teacher held me after class. Luckily for me, this teacher is more stubborn than I. She compelled me to share. I eventually obliged and she listened. She extended support and resources in my darkest hour.
We need to reevaluate why we privilege individualism over compassion. We need to confront all of the pain this calculation has caused. We’re constantly reminded that individualism is the strongest thing you can have. Truly, the bravest thing you can do is to ask for help.
I’m still struggling to come to terms with the excruciating truths I call my life. I doubt if I’ll ever accept them, but I feel less alone now.
The best way I can describe my struggle with mental health without being too abstract is through Tame Impala’s song “Let It Happen.”
At 5:28, Kevin Parker starts singing gibberish. It isn’t complete gibberish because there are some words and phrases you can make out, but for the most part you have no idea what he is saying. When I finally realized that I needed help or else I was going to fail out of college or have some huge regret in the afterlife, I realized that that gibberish was how I felt.
It was like I was at the bottom of a pool. I could see people and I could hear them but it was distorted, like “Let It Happen,” and because I was at the bottom I had no way of telling people that I was there.
I didn’t understand how people could be so happy, so put together with their lives. I know that’s not the case, but my struggle with anxiety and depression robbed — and still occasionally robs — me of any logic.
That gibberish part was friends and family talking to me, but I just couldn’t connect with them.
There were days when I’d resurface and breath in air, but I was still inside the pool, and it just reminded me that I’d eventually sink back down and everything would be distorted again.
When I finally started seeing a therapist and started taking antidepressants, there was a sense of relief, but it also felt like I had to hide it. I know part of it was just me being too critical about myself, but I thought that if people knew that I needed help, they would see me as weak or dumb or not good enough to be at UCSB as an engineering major.
Seeing my therapist feels like I could take some phrases of gibberish to them and they would help me translate. I’m a private person, so opening up about everything that felt wrong was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I’ve never regretted it.
The days where I hear gibberish are fewer now that I’m in the shallow end of the pool. Even on days where I just hear gibberish and everything looks distorted, I don’t feel as anxious. I just feel like, “ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I’ll get over it,” which I wouldn’t have thought a year ago.
I have the tendency to mince words. It’s a minor fault, but when coupled with my manic depression it often snowballs into an avalanche of feverish notes scribbled in the margins of my notebooks and magazines, hung on my walls and at times even smeared haphazardly across my skin. I can’t help myself; in times of distress, a good couplet is a quicker fix than a costly bender. I suppose it’s for the best. My family’s history of addiction and my own rebellious disposition are bound to turn foul if left to fester.
For me, language is a godsend, or maybe a mansend — no, that doesn’t have the right ring to it. There’s something I wish my language arts teachers would have impressed on me earlier: If the words don’t taste right, you can hardly expect anyone to digest them.
Regardless, I’ve spent many a feverish evening slouched over a notepad, jotting away my insecurities. It’s the closest thing to therapy I’ve been able to endure. A blank page never judges — not that a therapist would either, but it’s far easier for me to get freaky with a Bic and some papyrus without worrying about what it all means.
When I stress myself out about something, often pulled from a shortlist of crises, I’ll sit down somewhere quiet and mix together different phrases. Sometimes they make sense, sometimes they relate to my life, but usually it’s just thinly-structured gibberish.
It distracts me from whatever had me tied in knots, and all it costs is some minor personal embarrassment months later when I stumble on a forgotten exercise, which at that point usually resembles a bunch of Nazca lines. In my eyes, it’s a small price to pay for domestic tranquility or at least some semblance of sanity. Life’s too short to waste wallowing.
“I had a plan,” she told me.
It was the Monday after her birthday weekend. She had a yearly tradition of welcoming us all to this secret local spot called “The Cheesecake Factory.” As with all chain restaurants on Friday nights attempting to entertain a group of 20-30 teenagers, we often waited several hours to be seated. For her 17th birthday, she decided to switch it up: A group of five of us hit up BJ’s Restaurant. As we laughed and showered her with love for a few hours, she gave me no indication that she would attempt to take her life.
“I couldn’t go through with it,” she told me later.
Depression wasn’t new. Self-harm wasn’t new. That much we had already spent hours talking about, talking through. She promised she would always be truthful with me, and in exchange, I promised never to treat her differently. Something about the combination of knowing the weight of depression myself and the fact that I gave her compassion instead of pity made her trust me more than others.
“I was happy for the first time in a while,” she told me.
As I sat in the back of the classroom that I called home for three years, the one thing I remember is hopelessness. Amidst the chaotic atmosphere of the psuedo-newsroom, I stared blankly into my hands as she detailed to me how she was going to kill herself, the gravity of her words not quite registering in my head. The only thing I could do in the moment was express to her how thankful I was that she couldn’t go through with it, how grateful I was that she was alive.
“Sanya, can I talk to you outside for a minute?”
Our journalism teacher knew me pretty well at this point. She pulled me outside, under the guise of news talk, to ask me about what just happened. The next thing I knew, I was crying.
“She had a plan,” I said. “She was going to kill herself.”
I couldn’t make it through a single full sentence.
She didn’t forgive me for a long time afterward. I knew I was losing her trust when I told our teacher, but I can’t stress enough how little that meant to me if it meant she was getting professional help. I still don’t regret it.
I was 14 when I received the note. I was in a meeting that was supposed to be cell phone-free. When I felt the vibration of my flip phone in my jacket pocket, I thought nothing of it. But what I saw on the screen before me will forever be burned into my mind.
At first I didn’t register the nature of the message. But then the realization washed over me, and a wave of adrenaline flooded my entire body. I ran out of the room and began screaming and shaking. The situation was surreal; it was so foreign yet so familiar. I felt as though I was watching myself from outside my body.
So many thoughts raced through my head on a loop: I couldn’t lose my best friend. She had been doing well lately. She was supposed to be at this meeting, too. This couldn’t be real. This couldn’t be real. This couldn’t be real.
Thankfully, she was stopped before she could cause irreparable physical harm to herself. This wasn’t the first time and certainly hasn’t been the last that a very close friend has confessed the desire to end their life.
Being an external figure in someone else’s struggles with mental health is a tricky balance. As a friend, I found it incredibly difficult to juggle trying to be a supportive figure to my friends with my own lack of understanding. I had an enormous amount of sympathy for them but I could never put myself in their shoes, and I felt like I had failed as a friend.
The ultimate piece of wisdom I have learned from these situations is that acting in your friend’s best interest often directly conflicts with their state of mind and desires while in the throes of their mental health episodes.
In my junior year of high school, one of my friends and I reported our friend to a teacher and school psychologist because she was planning to end her life. When she was hospitalized she told us she would never forgive us for betraying her trust. Nothing in the world hurt more than that, but losing her as a friend was something I would risk every single time if it meant keeping her in this world.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with mental illness, the following resources can provide professional guidance and support.