I Thought I Was the Only One Struggling With Mental Illness in School

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Until my junior year at Vanderbilt, mental illness had never crossed my mind. I grew up with a privileged background and wanted to follow in my parents’ footsteps and become a corporate lawyer. My first episode of major depression and medical leave from school completely changed that. The struggle I experienced from my bipolar disorder over the next eight years opened my eyes, particularly to the unique challenges college students struggling with mental health face.

My difficulties and challenges were prolonged and made worse because I thought I was the only one going through this kind of depression. Now I know that a lot of people go through it, but at the time I knew no one else who was going through what I was going through. It made me feel like I was the only one who was experiencing depression and had to leave school. I also had no examples of people who had gone through it in college and come out the other side. No one I knew was talking about it.

This isolation really compounded my sense of failure. I thought, “Everyone else is doing fine, so it must mean I am that much more of a failure. This is my fault.”

This created a sense of guilt within me that really perpetuated the symptoms of depression I was experiencing. I really wished I could have tapped into a community of people who were on a medical leave or who were thinking about one. Instead I was isolated.

So I rushed back to school too soon, before I was fully stable and ready to handle the challenges of the academic environment. I did this because I was craving community and structure and didn’t have any. I was craving my college student identity and the feeling I wasn’t someone who was just ill and disordered. But it was too soon and I actually had to go on multiple leaves. When you go back to school too soon, you can get trapped in a cycle of repeating patterns because you haven’t put in place the kinds of healthy routines and coping mechanisms you need to be successful.

I wish I had found some kind of program to help me prepare to go back. It could have been really helpful. Programs like this are like training wheels. They allow you to “renormalize” and learn what it’s like to function as a student in society. They ease you back into school to give you a better chance of success. They also give you a community of people who are struggling with some of the same things you are so you don’t feel like the only one.

I want people to hear my story so they know they are not alone. Today, I am studying for my master’s degree in social work so I can get my license. I also mentor students enrolled in Fountain House’s College Re-Entry Program, which is exactly the kind of bridging program I could have used when I was in college.

To learn more about how the Fountain House’s College Re-Entry Program helps students transition back to school, visit their site

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9 Tips That Helped Me Manage My Depression

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As I’ve been reading more on depression, I’ve bumped into several articles that share information for managing depression. Having been through a major depressive episode and as I’m continuing to attend a men’s support group for anxiety and depression, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about managing my mental health.

First of all, everybody’s management looks different. Everybody can have their own plan, and certain options may work better for some than for others. However, no matter what the plan is, I strongly advocate that it is a plan that includes several pieces. I do not believe there is one fix for anybody’s depression. Here are some of the pieces I believe you may want to include in your plan:

1. Medication.

(Please note: I am not a doctor and am not advocating for or against medications. These are simply my thoughts.) Yes, this can be a controversial piece. Medications may work for some, and they may not be needed by others. However, I believe strongly that if you are taking medications, you should understand why you are being prescribed a medication and what it is meant to do for you. I feel this should ideally be a conversation with your psychiatrist and not simply a doctor dictating what you will be taking. You should ask questions and gain as much information as possible. I have been shocked to meet some people who have a long list of medications they are taking and have no idea what some of the medications on their list are for.

2. A psychologist.

Seek out a psychologist for talk therapy. Don’t give up on talk therapy if you have a bad first experience. In my experience, it is well worth “shopping around” to find a therapist with whom you “click.” It’s important to find a therapist who you trust. I’ve found a great deal of research supports the benefit of talk therapy.

3. Exercise.

There have been many studies that show exercise is critical for our mental health. If necessary, start small. Go for a walk a few days a week outside. Speed up your walk when you’re able to. If and when possible, begin to increase the rigor or amount of times throughout the week you exercise. Eventually, exercising (at a fairly rigorous level) at least three days a week for 20 to 30 minutes would be ideal. It was through my recovery that I began yoga. I also exercised on an elliptical, as we are lucky enough to have one in our basement.

4. A support network.

Do what you can to build your support network. Before I began a partial hospitalization program for my major depressive disorder, I invited two of my closest friends to my house to share my plan with them. I asked them to support me. They did not know how to support me. I think it is common for people to want to provide support, yet they often may not know how. Offering suggestions to them could be helpful. I asked my friends to send me positive text messages and to invite me out for coffee or breakfast now and then, and to not allow excuses from me. It can be easy to isolate oneself when going through depression, yet this can be detrimental to recovery. Another step I took prior to entering the program was joining a men’s anxiety and depression support group. This has been hugely helpful for me, and although I have been mentally healthy for over two years, I still attend the group on a regular basis. I believe the narrower the topic of the group, the better, as it can be easier to relate to one another.

5. Hobbies.

Don’t give up on hobbies that you have, and try a new hobby. I was very skeptical of “arts and crafts” time at the partial hospitalization program. However, out of that, I began to draw pictures with pastels. I found out I could actually make some fairly decent pictures. My kids enjoyed what I made (we actually framed and hung some at my house), and they loved joining me and making their own. I also started playing the guitar. Hobbies can often become a “mindfulness” activity, an activity in which you focus exclusively on what you are doing, remain focused on it, and eliminate other thoughts. For me, they were quite meditative and soothing.

6. Get out and into nature.

It can be very difficult to leave one’s home when depressed. However, getting out can be very helpful. Check out an arboretum, visit the zoo, walk along a river, visit a park. The fresh air and nature can be powerful. When quite depressed, I bundled up and took a walk around the block when it was 30 below zero outside. The fresh air was invigorating. I also was invited by a friend to hike near a frozen river and take pictures (photography is another hobby of mine).

7. Journal.

Many of the men in the support group I attend journal on a regular basis. Everybody seems to have their own method of journaling, yet all seem very therapeutic. I began to journal the night before I started the partial hospitalization program. I journaled every night. In my case, I liked ending each journal entry with, “Today, in order to work towards my recovery, I…” I would create a list. Sometimes the list was very short and very simplistic. For example, one entry included only one item: “I attended the partial hospitalization program.” Other entries included, “I texted one of the persons who I have identified as a person of support,” or “I played a card game with my children.” It helped me to recognize I was actively working towards recovery. On a good evening, I may have been able to include six or eight statements of how I was working towards recovery. If you suggest this to a male friend/relative who is dealing with depression, I would suggest trying the term ”journal” rather than “diary.”

8. Mindfulness and/or meditation.

Some people believe strongly that meditation can help manage depression. I believe that the two are interrelated. Meditation is often sitting and attempting to calm your mind and to let thoughts pass through, without focusing on them. I found this to be very difficult during my depression, as I had millions of thoughts racing through my head. However, as I began to recover, it was very helpful. There are quite a few books and resources for meditation, specifically for supporting one’s way through depression.

While mediation is focusing on clearing the mind, mindfulness is exclusively focusing deeply on one thing you are doing. If you are washing the dishes, for example, you focus exclusively on washing the dishes. You notice the feelings of the warm water over your hands, the sound of the water hitting the bottom of the basin, etc. Both of these strategies can help to suppress mind-wandering, which can often stray to negative thoughts and may lead to ruminations. Simple activities such as working on puzzles can be an enjoyable way to practice mindfulness.

9. Socializing.

Try to stay connected with friends. When dealing with mental illness, be sure to stay connected with friends and family in other ways. Push yourself to meet with a friend for coffee or a meal. Invite a close friend to your house or, better yet, get out of your place and visit them at theirs. The idea is to not let yourself isolate.

I believe there are many pieces to getting and staying mentally fit. Everybody’s “plan” can look different. What helps one person may not be as helpful to another person. Find what works best for you. Do not rely on just one or two strategies. The more strategies you can pull into your plan, the better. Good luck!

I encourage people to reply to this blog and share what works for them! Thank you!

Editor’s note: This is based on one person’s experiences and should not be taken as medical advice. Consult a doctor or medical professional for any questions or concerns you have.

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A version of this post originally appeared on Al’s mental health blog.

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I Thought Therapy Was a Waste of Time – Until It Started Working

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My eyes open. Darkness shrouds my body in my black abyss of a room. I roll over and see my wife still sleeping. I quietly roll over to the other side of the bed and check my phone. It reads 4:38 a.m.

I roll out of bed and go to the bathroom. I stare into the mirror and look at the bags under my eyes. Eyes drooping, face flushed and mind exhausted.

“Damn it!” I think to myself.

I don’t even recognize myself anymore. Ever since I have accepted my diagnosis, it is like I have gotten worse. I thought the whole purpose was to eventually get better.

I go to group therapy four to five days a week, every week for the last seven weeks. When I first started the class, I got nothing out of it. That was probably due to me slouching in my worn out chair and just staring down the counselor, not really digesting the information she was feeding me. Instead, I was spitting it up like a child who just refuses to let the “airplane” deliver the baby carrot food to its mouth.

I am not going to get the help I need because nobody even knows my pain. I am just going to go to these meetings, nod, smile and agree to whatever the counselor says. Whatever gets me the hell out of here faster, I would think to myself.

In all honesty, I did not want the therapy to work because I just wanted to wither away like a rose bush at the beginning of winter. I was done, defeated, dead man walking. I had fought the good fight, with all of the late nights crying myself to sleep, sobbing uncontrollably, screaming into my pillow. I would stare at the wall for hours at a time after I got home from work, contemplating ending it all and how I would do it and thinking of goodbye notes to leave for my loved ones.

I decided though, that I owed it to the ones whom I loved to try this therapy thing out.

“I at least owe them one session,” I thought to myself.

Well, one session turned into two. Two turned into three. Three turned into a week. After a couple of weeks, I noticed something. The therapy was working.

Wait. What? How is this possible? Therapy is just a scam created for milking thousands of dollars from us people who struggle with mental illnesses. Plus, I still didn’t care for myself. I just did not, plain and simple.

I noticed though that it wasn’t me who was keeping me at these sessions. It was the other people in that room with me. The other people who were hurting inconsolably. I related to their pain. Now, let me make one thing clear, everybody’s depression and/or anxiety is different. Just because we have the same diagnosis does not mean we feel the same pain.

While in therapy, I listened to my companions and paid earnest attention. After they shared, my hand darted up, and I just had to share what I thought with them. I wanted to help take away just a shard of their pain. I felt like I had accomplished something: Giving someone a reason to keep going on, even if it is just for one more day. You never know what kind words can do for a person’s future.

What I did not notice until weeks after going to therapy, is that well…. Therapy was actually helping me. What? How? Well, while I was busy helping my group friends and giving them advice, I was also on the receiving end of good advice, and more importantly, I was receptive of the advice.

That is the thing about group therapy. It is essentially looking into mirrors (group companions) of yourself and talking about your illness, issues on your heart and giving yourself advice. Being able to expose yourself to your rawest form and receive the feedback from your group and to cry and hug together.

My eyes open. Light pokes through the cracks of the curtains warming my skin. I roll over and see my beautiful wife while she sleeps. My entire world lying down right beside me. I quietly roll over to the other side of the bed and check my phone. It reads 6:10 a.m.

I roll out of bed and go to the bathroom. I stare into the mirror and look at the glow of my eyes. It has been some time since I saw them shine like that. Eyes shining, face glowing and mind determined.

“Time to do this!” I think to myself. I don’t even recognize myself anymore. Ever since I have accepted my diagnosis, started therapy and medication, I have gotten better. I thought the whole purpose was to eventually get better!

One step at a time.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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Depression Tried to Kill Me Today

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Editor’s note: This piece contains language that may be triggering to someone experiencing suicidal thoughts. If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

I don’t remember exactly how long it took for me to realize that suicidal thoughts were not normal for everyone. I think that is because the thoughts for me did not burst into my brain in any way that made me take notice of them. It happened slowly and quietly in a way that seemed to make total sense to me. When I was talking to my counselor and casually mentioned suicidal thoughts she immediately took notice of what I did not: my depression was worse than I was letting on. I figured everybody had thoughts of ending their life. I didn’t realize that when some people see a bottle of pills they simply see medicine and don’t wonder if there is enough in the bottle to be lethal. When they see a bridge, they think about the view and not the distance to the bottom. I didn’t recognize those thoughts as symptoms of depression.

Today those thoughts were not just a background to the dance my brain does daily with depression. Those thoughts were what greeted me as I woke up — how I could die rather than face the day. The truth is, my depression tried to kill me today.

Why is it so hard to reach out to friends and family on days like today? Why is it that we find it so terrifying to face stigma that we risk our lives to avoid it? These thoughts are symptoms of an illness and to ignore them is to put ourselves in danger. So often depression kills by convincing people it isn’t really there or isn’t causing those thoughts.

It’s the end of the day, and I am still alive. That does not mean I am out of the woods. It only means I live to fight the same fight tomorrow. But it also means I have the opportunity to fight differently. Maybe I can be ready for the fight and surround myself with people who help me fight those thoughts. Depression tried to kill me today, but it didn’t.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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5 Reminders for My Partner Who Has Depression

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Recently I started a relationship with a person who has depression. Note that I don’t say a “depressed person,” but rather “a person with depression,” because their illness does not define them. I do not only love them because of their illness, but I also love them in spite of it. You have to learn to love every part of them — good and bad.

I’ve learned a lot so far in this relationship, and one of the hardest things is seeing how worthless your partner can feel. They can be totally down on themselves when you only see their amazingness, and the worst part is they can’t ever see themselves through your eyes. These are five things I want my partner with depression to remember:

1. I will worry about you.

I know you might feel guilty about “filling me in” on your condition. You might feel bad for feeling bad, but I want to hear these emotions. I will worry. Part of caring for someone is worrying when they’re not doing well.

2. I do want updates on your condition.

I know you might feel guilty about feeling sick. The truth is though, your condition is not your fault. Just like my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is not my fault, your condition is not yours. The same way you expect me to share my updates on my condition, I expect updates on yours. When I hear you’re having a bad day, I might get upset — but I’m not upset with you. I’m upset that you don’t see how brilliant you are, and that I cannot do anything to help you. Despite my ability to help you though, please keep me in the loop because I care.

3. It is OK to let me in.

You might push people away, and I understand that. You don’t want to let anyone else in on your pain in an attempt to shield him or her from it, but by some miracle I got past that shield. Every day since then, I have been grateful to have you, and I want you to let me in. As I said before, I will worry, but that should not be an excuse to shut me out.

4. I will love you no matter how down you are on yourself.

You constantly ask me, “Why did you choose me?” The truth is that everyone has his or her issues. Your issues might be from mental illness, while mine are physical, and the next person’s emotional, but that won’t prevent me from being with whom I want to be with. Behind your “I’m OK” face and walls to keep others out, I see one of the best people I have ever met. I see someone full of kindness and compassion that was given quite an obstacle in life. No matter how hard of a day you are having though, I will love you. I know you are used to people leaving you in your tough times, and so am I, but I am here to stay. Rather than hiding on your bad days, I will celebrate your good and hold your hand on the bad, but above all I will be here through both.

5. I will not try to reason with your mental illness, but I do always care about you.

I learned pretty early on that you couldn’t reason with mental illness. As much as you want them to see themselves as you see them, it doesn’t work like that. For this reason, I may not be as quick to push you to do something or correct an opinion you have of yourself, but I do still care.

Any of you who have a significant other with depression, I hope you can relate to this list. It’s incredibly hard seeing them go through this on their own, but we are here for them every step of the way.

To my boyfriend, I know that you will never see yourself how I see you. I know that you cannot escape the depths of your mind. I know that I cannot “fix” you, and that’s OK because I don’t want to.

You are not broken.

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What It Means to Feel Alone When You Have Depression

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Most days I’m fine. I know I have people who care about me, and I know they will be there for me when I need them.

On days when my depression kicks it up a notch, I can feel alone in the most crowded places.

It’s not a feeling of being sad. You just feel empty inside. And you are unable to communicate the things that are important to you. I get scared out of my mind when I’m alone. I can’t even sleep without the TV on to drown out the buzzing thoughts going through my head. Most of the time they are negative or untrue, but when one is in that state of mind, you can’t help yourself. I don’t do it on purpose. It just happens. I start thinking about the future and get scared it won’t turn out like I have planned. I think about the past and that weird thing I said 10 years ago. If I remember it, they must too, right? I feel alone inside my head. I watch cartoons to feel better. I always watch comedies because that is the only genre that makes me forget momentarily about daily things.

Imagine being at a party, surrounded by all of your friends, and all these thoughts come rushing in. Then you start to think, are these people really my friends? Do they really care about me? Can’t they see that I need help? The thoughts never stop coming. Not only do I have to force myself to go out and be with people, I also have to convince myself to take a look around. There are all of these people around me and interacting with each other; I’m even having a conversations with one of them, but I feel isolated. I’m not very good with describing this feeling, but the sad part is, it’s my normal.

Depression makes you long for the interaction with people, but it’s as if it’s just right out of reach.

I’m scared of the feelings my mind can make me feel. Even though they are just thoughts, they hurt physically and emotionally. I’ve tried to explain this to someone, but unless you go through it, you can’t understand. No, I can’t just “forget about them.” No, I just can’t “let it go.” This is me, and I’m scared to be alone.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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