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a counselor at University Health Services with a student

‘Ripping the Band-Aid off depression': How students found hope on their mental health journeys

Monday, November 2, 2020

Physical illness isn’t the only concern in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report in August that revealed about one quarter of 18-to 24-year-olds had “seriously considered” suicide in the past 30 days. 

Oklahoma State University senior Emma C* (last name abbreviated for anonymity) knows firsthand the pain, heartache and loneliness that a mental health struggle can include. Diagnosed with chronic depression and anxiety when she was 13, she went through middle and high school battling mental health challenges. 

“Anxiety and depression are really cruel beasts in tandem,” Emma said. “In high school, I had trouble maintaining relationships, and my family wasn’t super supportive of my struggles, so that made it difficult, too.” 

She started working full-time at 16 and dedicated herself to excelling in school. She used work and a deep desire to achieve to get through. It worked for a while, but she wasn’t taking care of her inner self and eventually fell apart, she said.  

“My senior year I went off the rails,” Emma said. “I was having such bad anxiety that I couldn’t even lift my pencil to take exams. I was turning in tests with my name written on the top and ‘I’m sorry’ written on the bottom. Struggling really affected my self-worth.” 

After coming to Oklahoma State University, Emma decided to make her mental health a priority. She had attended therapy sessions off and on for years, but she decided to start attending regularly. Whether to her support system or to her therapist, Emma said the first step of reaching out is the hardest part. 

“It’s like ripping the Band-Aid off depression,” she said. “It was the hardest to accept that there is nothing wrong asking for help and nothing wrong with asking repeatedly. I’m lucky to have a lovely support system with good friends, and even with them it’s hard to be vulnerable and say, ‘I’m struggling with depression right now.’” 

Kailey J*, a psychology freshman, agrees that reaching out for help and being open about mental health struggles is difficult. Although her mental health has been a struggle for years, it deteriorated once she came to college with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting normal life. 

She feared people would treat her differently once they discovered her anxiety and depression or rush her to get over it, but through the persistence of caring friends, she slowly began to open up about her struggles. She continues to seek treatment and take an active role in managing her mental health. 

“I found hope confiding in my friends,” Kailey said. “Because even though people look like they have it all together or wouldn’t understand, they are probably going through a struggle, too. We were able to relate to each other on some level.”

Student Counseling Center coordinator Joseph Dunnigan emphasized the importance of telling a trustworthy friend or family member about your inner struggles. He said confiding in someone can help break the isolating thought patterns that sometimes come with mental health struggles.

“Talking with someone you trust provides a way to externalize these issues,” Dunnigan said. “It normalizes our experiences and reminds us that they aren’t something to be ashamed of. Mental health issues may be isolating, so when you understand that you aren’t alone in that struggle, it can be reassuring. [Sharing] activates empathy and connection.” 

Asking for Help

Although Emma and Kailey’s stories are their own, they reflect trends in college campuses nationwide. 

According to the CDC, almost three quarters of college-age adults reported struggling with at least one mental health symptom as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Reaching out to friends and creating a support system are vital steps to combating mental health challenges. Meeting with someone who is trained to listen and provide coping skills is another. 

At OSU, University Counseling Services has 12 full-time counselors available to students. Because mental health is such a priority, the university offers an intake and four free sessions annually to students.  

Further sessions are $10, and that cost can be charged to a student’s bursar account. To maintain confidentiality, the charge is labeled as a health services fee for students whose family members have access to view their bursar account details. For students with financial concerns, the fee can be waived. 

“Cost should never be a barrier for students accessing mental health resources,” Dunnigan said. 

Therapy and treatments are customizable to students’ unique stories and struggles, Dunnigan said. But like all mental health services, counseling only works when it’s used. 

“In talking with a therapist, you can see different options,” Dunnigan said. “Talking about some of those concerns you may have or symptoms that make up [certain illnesses] can help you understand and learn that there are treatments.” 

For Kailey, therapy has been one of the most useful tools in her battle with mental health. 

“My therapist has given me tips and tricks to handle anxiety attacks and my mental health in general,” Kailey said. “She gives me hope and a way to express my feelings.”

Staying Afloat

Each individual has a unique mental health journey, Dunnigan said. Sometimes there’s not a quick fix, and there will be a mix of good and bad mental health days. 

“Sometimes it takes years for issues to develop,” Dunnigan said. “That means it can take time to work through them and get to this new normal of how we deal with mental health in a more positive and proactive way. In our culture, we expect to be able to pick things up or master them quickly, which isn’t realistic. Like anything, good mental health takes practice and time.”

For Emma, that realization changed how she views her own mental health.

“I always like the imagery of depression being like the tide,” Emma said. “Sometimes the tide comes in and stays longer than other days. When the tide is down, you walk on the beach and everything’s normal. Other days you are treading water, afraid you’ll drown. That’s OK. Because the most important thing about the tide is it goes out. It doesn’t stay up forever.”

On those “high-tide” days, Emma said finding little ways to care for her mental health keeps her afloat. 

“Those little things hold value and weight,” Emma said. “If you are in the depths of it right now, it’s OK if these little things are all you can do. I would always recommend drinking water and taking a 20-minute walk. Give yourself grace.”

Whether mental health struggles have been a lifelong battle or have emerged with the strain of COVID-19 or other pressures, OSU students don’t have to struggle alone, Dunnigan said. 

 

 

STORY BY: Kylee Sutherland | Communications Intern

MEDIA CONTACT: Mack Burke | Editorial Coordinator | 405.744.5540 | mack.burke_iv@okstate.edu 

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