For a school that prides itself on emphasizing the life of the mind, there seems to be remarkably little discussion here at Swarthmore about the mind misbehaving, or acting in off or unusual ways.
I suffer from General Mood Disorder, which means that my psychiatrist doesn’t have an exact diagnosis for me, though there are certain severe symptoms of several mental illnesses present; pardon the alliteration. Let me give you a glimpse into how this plays out at Swat.
I’ve had the privilege of crying into my pillow and then screaming into it over and over again for no reason whatsoever. There was also some minor self-harm, but what would venting be without it? And since Mertz, though a lovely place, isn’t as private as one might want, I visit Old Tarble around three to four times a week late at night just because I need a place to be alone. Not necessarily to cry, scream, or harm, but simply to have a spot to myself.
I had missed Arabic one morning so I could finish an essay and I ran into my professor later that night on my daily walk in the Ville. He informed me that there had been a test that day – of course, I had no clue – and though he assured me that it was alright, that I could take the test whenever I wanted, and that there would be no penalty, I walked away and broke down in the little alley next to Hobbs. I saw a woman walking her dog about to enter, but when she saw me she wisely passed me by.
I was compelled by my guilt to take the test ASAP, in spite of having not known there was a test and, therefore, having not thoroughly prepared.
Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not sharing these stories to bare my soul to the community or to encourage pity. I’m taking it upon myself to ground the reality of mental health issues and emotional disabilities on this campus. If these are two relatively benign stories from only one person, just imagine the untold others.
In actuality, it’s quite surprising how few stories any of us hear. I was surprised coming here by the lack of public discourse about mental wellbeing, especially considering how many resources are available to us. CAPS is free to every single student. And should CAPS not meet your exact needs, they will speedily refer you to someone off-campus. There’s the Speak 2 Swatties program that allows anyone to speak to trained students if they don’t feel comfortable going to CAPS, and not to mention the many, many programs the Wellness Center provides for students.
So if all these resources are here for us, why do students feel embarrassed to admit that they need help, that they’re actively pursuing help in an attempt to reclaim their health? Why should I feel uncomfortable telling people that I go to the oddly placed doctor’s office every week for therapy? (It’s near the Qdoba on the Pike, if you were curious.) Why do we think seeking help implies that we are weak?
In reality, there is nothing stronger than admitting we need help. There is no prize for doing it alone.
This October passed by at Swat with barely a mention that it was Depression Awareness Month. Suicide Awareness Week came and went in September with a simple, bare poster displaying some statistics and a hotline number. It angered me that a fact of life afflicting so many of us went without address.
But forget about designated months, weeks, or days – that’s not the core problem here. Let’s start inserting awareness in conversation. At Swat, let’s both acknowledge and discuss depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and the host of other mental illnesses that impact millions upon millions of people everyday.
When I told people about this article during the writing process, I subsequently would hear their stories about either their own mental illness or mental illnesses that have afflicted those they love. Some initially expressed reticence in sharing these stories, but when they finally let it go, it was as though a weight had been lifted. There is a strong instant connection, in my experience, between those who have been personally affected by emotional disability. The fact of the matter is that many, many people here have these stories. Support, in one form, is already present, but it often remains silent.
So ultimately, the onus lies upon each and every one of us to start these difficult conversations. But there is a caveat. Starting conversations doesn’t mean we need to or should start revealing every part of our inner lives to everybody. We do need to begin feeling comfortable talking about our emotional issues though. For most, this means speaking with those to whom we feel close, the people who will not judge us for feeling a certain way and who have a vested interest in our health. It means talking to the people who will listen.
We need to make it so that those who seek out help are not embarrassed to do so. And if it’s you who needs help, please don’t hesitate to speak and to speak out loudly, without risk of embarrassment.
To paraphrase a line I heard at orientation, “no matter what the world, or Swat, may say or do to you, you are still a worthwhile person.” Don’t forget that.