Ask anyone on the UCSB campus if they feel they contribute to the stigma toward depression and anxiety and they will swiftly respond “no” and may even insist that they frequently listen to their friend/sibling/mother/roommate’s problems with empathy and sincerity. While it’s likely that very few people on our campus outwardly mock struggles with mental health, I’ve noticed that social media can subliminally play a role in stigmatizing the desire to receive counseling.
My first few weeks at UCSB kept me occupied with hall activities, new club meetings, heavy workloads and lunches/dinners with people whose names I don’t remember. Days consisted of sun-drenched walks to Embarcadero Hall, bike rides to Goleta Beach and sunset study sessions on the balcony of Davidson. There was rarely time to reflect on my experiences; I was too busy actually experiencing it. Even my nights didn’t allow for much reflection and introspection as I spent “quiet hour” laughing with my roommates or pondering existentialism with random hallmates. After the distractions of my peers and my new environment faded each day, however, I was left alone with my thoughts and my iPhone, and nearly each night I struggled with bouts of loneliness and anxiety. I couldn’t rationalize why I felt this way; anyone judging my college experience objectively would agree that it was going well. In nightly attempts to distract myself, or perhaps to receive some affirmation that I was not alone in my vague unhappiness, I checked my Instagram and Twitter accounts. Picture after picture of my new Gaucho followers revealed sunny beaches, captions like “If you’re unhappy here, you’ll be unhappy anywhere,” and bikini-clad groups of new friends at location: Heaven on Earth. As I continued scrolling, I found the sentiment shadowed by friends at nearly every school, as distant high school acquaintances and best friends alike raved about the perpetual paradise that is college. Sure, I liked the pictures and retweeted the sunsets, but inside I felt pangs of inferiority and isolation. Why was I feeling anything but constant euphoria? And in what I now realize to be a dangerous cycle to receive validation by my peers, I posted my very own “living in paradise” photo, probably isolating any of my friends who may have been struggling with their mental health.
Desperate as I was to reach out to my closest friends at home for consolation, I refused. I refused to be the one friend who couldn’t perfectly assimilate to college, who couldn’t have the “best freshman year with the best people.” For months I internalized my struggles until finally I reached out to a friend at Northwestern. To my surprise, she echoed nearly all of my grievances. She, with the most envy-inducing Instagram of all time, admitted to me that she hadn’t yet found a solid group of lifelong friends, or found a perfect boyfriend, or aced all her classes or found a soulmate in her roommate. She complained of the cold, the homesickness, the constant struggle to determine what exactly to do with her life, etc. Her Instagram posts were simply mechanisms through which she gained validation and grew closer to the friends in the pictures with her, and were not accurate depictions of her daily life in Evanston. Since confessing to each other our insecurities, we’ve become comfortable sharing more of them whenever necessary, and this to me was pivotal in ending my personal stigma toward depression and anxiety.
I’ve since become more comfortable talking with my peers about the inevitable negatives of the college experience, and my eyes have been opened to a world of vulnerability and insecurity I hadn’t known existed. Everyone from quintessential sorority girls to the local hall comedian has admitted to thoughts of transferring, feelings of inferiority and occasional bouts of anxiety. Before my conversations, I’d forgotten that beneath the filters and emoji-clad captions exist actual human beings with imperfect lives.
When I reflect on my college experience so far, I rarely recall the nights spent with my cursor lingering over the C.A.P.S. website, or the times I felt like a stranger walking my regular route to class. In a severe case of hindsight bias, I really only remember the hilarious nights on DP, the engrossing discussions with professors and the stargazing at Campus Point. Despite my great experiences, my freshman year has also been rife with completely foreign struggles with confidence, time management and the anxiety that comes naturally with a change in lifestyle, and I like to think that, to an extent, this is true of anyone. Even if their Twitter suggests otherwise.