Most freshmen walk into their first quarters with high expectations for their social and academic lives. Kelly Harding, now a business administration senior, was no different. After all, college is supposed to be the best four years of your life. Yet best does not always mean happiest.
Harding was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in middle school. Throughout high school, she went to counseling with the support of her parents, but in college she wanted to start anew.
“I kind of thought that maybe my depression was just a phase in high school,” Harding said.
Unfortunately, mental illnesses do not work that way.
Harding did not know how to address her depression because she felt an overwhelming pressure to be happy. So instead, she pushed it aside and avoided speaking about it around her friends.
In spring of her freshman year, Harding decided to return home to Oregon due to the severity of her depression.
“Something my mom told me when I was choosing to leave Cal Poly is, ‘If you were in a car accident and had broken both your legs and your arms, nobody would judge you for leaving school, because you wouldn’t have the ability to do your work,’” Harding said. “And that’s kind of what depression is. It’s debilitating in so many aspects. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
After a year studying at University of Oregon, Harding returned to Cal Poly with strong support from her friends
Bucking the stigma
Mental illnesses affect one in four college students, according to Alexandra Hoatua, a psychology senior, secretary of Active Minds and a PULSE member.
Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) and PULSE teamed up with the Body Project and Active Minds to host ‘Buck the Stigma’ —an event promoting mental health awareness — in early March.
Events included Love your Selfie, De-stress Fest, Support your ‘Stangs, and Survive and Thrive. Each day had a different focus related to body positivity, self care, mental health and supporting one another. The goal was to educate students on both positive mental health and the harms of stigmas surrounding mental illnesses.
“One of the main things with ‘Buck the Stigma’ that we are trying to do is change the way we use our language,” Margo Jones, Reach-out Empower Accept Listen team member, said. Reach-out Empower Accept Listen is a part of Campus Health and Well Being Peer Education system.
Psychology sophomore Jones said that by normalizing and misusing terms, such as ‘depressed,’ ‘bipolar’ and ‘panic attack,’ students who experience these as a part of their day-to day-lives are discredited.
Biomedical engineering sophomore Leah Torres has ADHD and anxiety. From personal experience, Torres explained that panic attacks are not to be taken lightly.
“Panic attacks are a lot more severe [than anxiety attacks],” Torres said. “I’ve had a panic attack last for a good three hours and it took two days to recover. It was just exhausting – hyperventilating, crying, shaking and lots of irrational thoughts.”
When people misuse words, they do not always intend harm, Torres said. In most cases they’re uneducated about the meaning of the word and the reality of mental illnesses.
“I think people that like to use those terms flippantly really undermine what people with actual mental illnesses go through. [The terms] have widely accepted definitions, but the problem is those widely accepted definitions don’t really apply to anyone and they are usually very binary,” English junior Talia Bravo said.
Bravo has lived with depression most of her life and was recently diagnosed with schizotypal personality disorder.
One of the goals of ‘Buck the Stigma’ was to show the many resources available on campus and the students who are willing to help.
“There is stigma surrounding actual mental illness, but there is also stigma that surrounds actually coming in to get help,” Hoatua said.
In addition, not all students are aware of the resources available to them. When Bravo withdrew from Cal Poly her sophomore year, she left unaware of resources such as PULSE or the Disability Resource Center (DRC).
When she returned to Cal Poly, she knew she had to build her own support system and advocate for herself. Once she discovered that the DRC accommodates for students with mental illnesses, Bravo said they were very helpful.
With many resources to choose from, finding the right outlet, whether that be a friend or a counselor, can be life changing, Harding said.
“Taking that leap of faith to even tell one person is so courageous but also necessary and your future self will thank you for reaching out to just one person,” Harding said.
However, support does not always mean giving advice. Torres said in her experience, many people quickly dismiss her anxiety as “just stress” without understanding the consequences of their words.
“The days that I am ‘just stressed’ are actually good days. I can handle ‘just stress,’” Torres said.
Mental illnesses are not a choice. Instead of giving potentially insensitive advice, Torres said the best thing a friend can do is notice when anxiety is taking over and be supportive, even if they cannot relate.
On top of using resources and finding support, Bravo said it’s important to find what works best for each individual. For Bravo, some days that means group therapy or online support. Other days it means spending time to focus on accomplishments, no matter how small.
“Sometimes for me, self care is just recognizing that I can breathe. That I am breathing and maybe I can’t get out of bed, maybe I’m not eating, not showering, but I am still successfully doing one thing and that is breathing,” Bravo said. “And that translates into living. And maybe it is not the living that everyone else sees, the living that everyone else strives for, but I am still here.”
Torres also noted the importance of recognizing accomplishments. She said she made it through some of her worst days by believing in her ability to survive.
“I have to tell myself something along the lines of, ‘You’ve gotten through the last panic attack, you can get through this one,’” Torres said.
Harding found that the best healing process for herself is sharing her story and educating others on what it means to live with depression.
“The more we talk, the less the stigma is going to happen and the less students feel like they are alone,” Harding said.