We need to talk about mental health

We need to talk about mental health

Columnist Naomi Zeigler discusses the importance of a key issue facing college students.

Despite not being a runner before I started college, I ran all over campus during my first semester.

I threw my red AU baseball cap on my head, listened to Kanye West and as my feet hit the ground in the rhythmic, soothing motion I loved, I no longer needed to think about the loneliness I felt. I didn’t have to think about how my Resident Assistant was my only friend and how it was only because she needed to be. I didn’t have to think about how much I had succeeded in high school and how I had fallen flat in college. Running was a way of coping, a way of coping that didn’t involve asking for help.

After moving from a small town in Central Pennsylvania to Washington D.C., I realized how much faster life moves. My first year of college was a whirlwind. I signed my name on fifteen mailing lists at the Involvement Fair, juggled my five classes and a lab and tried to immerse myself in my new “home.”

However, this new life proved difficult and draining for me. Instead of feeling uplifted and optimistic about my future at AU, I only felt doubt and despondency. I was surrounded by people, thousands of people, and not one of them was someone with whom I could make a genuine connection. Night running became integral to my daily life. For thirty minutes, I knew that I could escape from the pain of being alone. In these thirty minutes, I could conquer anything. The hills, dips and long stretches of pavement were a temporary fix, my way of “solving” my problems by myself.

"We often tell people that 'it’s okay to not be okay.'"

The stigma of asking for help is pervasive and damaging, especially here. Being transparent in sharing struggles is to convey vulnerability in an environment that prides itself on speed and successes. I convinced myself that I was a failure. I was a failure because I didn’t have a 4.0 GPA. I was a failure because I was not involved on campus. I was a failure because I had never had an internship (and I didn't have one until now, my junior year).

Spring break, during second semester, was when I finally asked for help. I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive tendencies. To put a name to the monsters that had engulfed my life was liberating. To be able to receive support for them was life changing.

We often tell people that “it’s okay to not be okay.” As an Orientation Leader this summer, I heard these words during every session and often repeated them myself to my orientees. Despite the frequency of this rhetoric and, perhaps, its “cheesiness,” I wish someone had told me to take it to heart during my first year. And even though I am no longer a first year student, I still need to practice applying it.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 30% of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” In the Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s May 2014 study, the national average of suicides committed on college campuses were 6.5 to 7.5 per 100,000 students.

No person should feel as though they must bear the burdens of mental illness alone. While changing the way we view mental health on college campuses goes beyond “it’s okay to not be okay,” it is a good place to start. Together, we must encourage vulnerability and authenticity, we must be unafraid to collectively share our own struggles.

To all the other students running at night in your worn baseball caps trying to figure it out, you are not alone.

Naomi Zeigler is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences

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