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Why My Career Was Bad for My Mental Health

19, fresh-eyed, bushy-tailed and eager to make an impact on the lives of those pursuing a degree in higher education: that was me my sophomore year of college when I was selected to be a peer mentor for freshman college students. I wanted to help those who struggled with the acclimation period like I did, and guide students through difficult times by introducing them to experiences that would enhance their time at the university.

After three positive, impactful and personally fulfilling years of meeting fantastic new students as a peer mentor, and being involved in numerous leadership positions in my on-campus organizations, I was certain that a career in higher education was the right fit for me. I had even taken several work-study positions during my tenure at college to find my higher education “niche.” I made several connections on campus with staff who believed in my ability to make a significant difference in the field who offered to write me recommendation letters for graduate school.

I received acceptance into a top five school for a master’s program in higher education administration/college student personnel. I was mentally committed to diving head first into this experience and taking on as much as I could to become an even more well-rounded practitioner and student guide. I felt like I finally found my purpose; something that gave me the confidence I often struggled with as someone living with social anxiety. I decided that I wanted to focus on disability services so that I could help students through unique medical and mental struggles to achieve success in higher education. I subsequently heard in my career guidance course during my master’s program that students often choose a career based on something they lacked as a child. For me, I felt like my mental health was misunderstood (by both others and myself), especially during college, and I wanted to be a voice for those who did not know how to advocate for their rights.

The process of starting my graduate studies career was perfect. I was hired at my top selection of graduate assistantships and was able to live at home because the campus was so close to my parent’s house.

After my first semester, I was selected to be a graduate intern at a nearby rival institution, even closer to my parent’s house. Life was nearly perfect and so were my grades. That is, until the climate of the field became incongruent with my expectations (and my mental health). As a person with social anxiety, I am constantly battling with my inner voice that tells me I am not good enough. I need regular support and, often times, validation that I am on the right path. I was not receiving that in my program, nor at my graduate assistantship. In fact, the very people I looked up to as mentors found my weaknesses and intentionally broadcast them to others in the office. The politics of the field and the constant battle to be perfect in every stretch of the imagination became too much to bear. I was professionally evaluated for my dress, my personality, the way I talked and how I acted, rather than on my professional skills and abilities. This subjective assessment made me hypersensitive to how others’ perceived me, and therefore, my mental health deteriorated.

I moved away from my parent’s house to be closer to my internship and assistantship, thinking that it would ease some of the anxiety to be closer to my institutions. Rather, I got into a bad relationship that ended even worse, and hid my emotional pain by binge drinking and experimenting with drugs.

For a year, I slid through my graduate program with little recognition of who I was becoming. I thought school was easy, so I quit trying. I did not fit in with the people in my program, so I stopped trying there too. I even thought I was a worthless person to be in a relationship with, so it was easier for me to stay uncommitted because I wasn’t good enough to be “girlfriend” material anyway. It was easier for me to become the person that people thought I was, rather than exhausting myself into perfection or just being myself. I wanted to numb the pain of a toxic relationship and silence the constant evaluation I was subjected to. My mental health convinced me that I was a horrible person, worth nothing more than a fun personality, only when I was under the influence.

My relationship with myself, others, and the one thing I loved more than anything, school, was catapulted into a mental health disaster; fueled by the pressure to be perfect when I knew that I wasn’t, and also when I knew that it was OK not to be perfect. I moved seven hours away by myself to another state to get a “fresh start” on life and to devoid myself of the person I was becoming. I was surprised and shocked that I was able to get my dream job in disability services, despite my frank disregard and lack of respect for myself. It was refreshing that someone still saw potential in me, even when I did not see it in myself. At this point, I was mentally fragile — unsure of who I was or where life was going to take me. However, I knew that this was going to be my best shot at healing.

Surprisingly, my mental health suffered there too, and I found myself contemplating suicide and wishing this would all go away. I increased my medication and became closer to a walking zombie than the once vibrant and eager young woman who could take on the world.  I knew that for the sake of my well-being, it would be best for me to be in close proximity to my family and friends.

After two years at my dream job, I moved back home to Ohio with my loving significant other and with my family who had always supported me. I did a lot of writing, sleeping, some medication adjustment and meditation to get back in touch with who I am. Had it not been for these experiences, I would have never known how important it is to find a career that aligns with not only your skills, but also your mental health.

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

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Thinkstock photo via Pinkypills