How college taught me to handle my depression

My academic performance and future career could not take priority over my mental health

My freshman year of college was a blur of oversleeping, skipped classes, and constant exhaustion. I had struggled with depression for years, ever since middle school, but had always had a system in place to keep me going: my parents scheduling my therapist appointments and reminding me to take my pills in the morning, a set group of friends to rely on, and a structured and relatively easy school life.

The transition to college shattered my mental state. Technically, I could lie in bed all day if I wanted to. I could eat like garbage. I could drink every night of the weekend. Nobody was urging me to work out, to eat right, to take care of myself.

As anyone who’s struggled with depression understands, the seemingly small decisions we make regarding our bodies can have massive impacts on our mental health. I was constantly worn out. The energy it took to drag myself out of bed to make a class at noon was almost impossible to muster, and I missed most of my classes that didn’t take attendance. I was behind on assignments all year, sometimes barely scraping through a course with a passing grade.

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To someone without depression, this behavior may just sound like laziness, but that’s a dangerous oversimplification. I did feel lazy, and I beat myself up over it, but I couldn’t control it.

Depression isn’t just a whiney word for sadness. Clinical depression, a legitimate illness caused by chemical imbalances of neurotransmitters in the brain, can leave its victims physically tired, unable to concentrate, and perpetually disinterested. When I did drag myself out of bed, I was sluggish and drowsy and could hardly focus long enough to get anything done.

Over time, I began to recognize my sleeping habits as a sign of depression. Nothing could make me want to get out of bed, and every so often there was a day when I just didn’t.

Days went by in a haze. I was accompanied by an overwhelming sense of sadness, usually without an identifiable cause. Even after exerting very little effort throughout each day, I retuned home exhausted and ready to turn in early.

After a few semesters like this, spending most of my time sleeping and struggling to keep up in class, I realized that if I didn’t put some serious effort into fighting my depression, I might not get my diploma.

I made a commitment to make my mental health my first priority. I thought of everything therapists and psychologists had told me over the years about fighting the effects of depression, and I conducted some research of my own online and at the student health center.

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I knew regular exercise, eating right, and getting enough sleep were all important for regulating mood, but I noticed a number of other less obvious aspects of my life that were contributing to how I was feeling. I became more in tune with the shifts in my mood and energy levels and what seemed to cause them. After noticing that I would experience severe depressive episodes the day after drinking, I vowed to cut down. It was a bummer being the most sober of the group on a night out, but it was a necessary sacrifice for my overall wellbeing.

I made the changes I knew a doctor would suggest. I forced myself to go to the gym as often as I could, even if I could only fit in a 20 minute workout. I made sure I had enough healthy food prepared for the week. If I had time to spare between classes, I got a coffee and parked myself somewhere on campus instead of going home, where I would usually find my bed calling out to me.

I also started dragging myself to therapy once a week. I had had a brief stint in therapy freshman year but was often too busy with classes to go, and I eventually stopped trying to fit in in my schedule. The second time around, I picked one time a week in between classes and scheduled appointments every week for a month into the future. I wrote the dates in my planner and used both the calendar and the alarm on my phone to make absolutely sure not to skip.

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The therapy helped enormously. Even if nothing particularly upsetting had happened that week, after sinking into the sofa in my therapist’s office, I felt comfortable enough to say whatever I found myself thinking. I would leave refreshed and free of any weighing emotions.

The therapy also helped me open up to those closest to me. People with depression often try to hide it. The stigma of the term itself often pressures people to keep their struggles a secret. Besides that, the emotions they’re feeling can be difficult to communicate even when they want to. They can appear out of nowhere, without provocation. Trying to express this to someone who’s never felt it can be a fruitless effort. But I started to try. I started by admitting that I took medication for depression rather than treat it like a secret. I told myself it was okay to leave my pill bottle on my nightstand to help me remember it instead of hiding it in a desk drawer. Overall, I tried to be less concerned with how people would think of me and decided to treat depression as a commonplace thing.

Because depression is commonplace. It affects almost seven percent of American adults today, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. And it’s especially commonplace on college campuses and among our age group. Unfortunately, its commonness doesn’t mean its victims usually get the help they need. Almost two out of three people don’t receive treatment.

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With the resources Temple offers, though, there’s no reason students struggling with depression shouldn’t get help. Tuttleman Counseling Services on Liacouras Walk offers resources for students struggling with their mental health or even just struggling with difficult circumstances, like family troubles or a dysfunctional relationship. There’s information on sexuality, abuse, even getting along with a roommate.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone, there are other options. Students can request to see a therapist or just pick up some literature to read through in private. The self-help center provides activities to cope with stress, something all college students have experienced, even if they don’t have a diagnosed anxiety disorder. The options for help at school are almost limitless—there’s no reason for you not to take care of yourself.

By acknowledging the difficulties depression posed to me as a student, I ended up going a little easier on myself. I accepted that I couldn’t go the astronomical lengths I saw other students going to for a grade. Pulling regular all-nighters at the tech to maintain straight A’s came with side effects I couldn’t risk. My academic performance and future career, while important, could not take priority over my mental health.

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