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Thanksgiving break, sophomore year of college, I finally broke down. I was supposed to return to Ann Arbor the next morning, the thought of which left me outstretched and face down on the couch in my childhood home. My mother found me there and asked what I was doing. When I didn't respond, she squeezed her body next to mine and peeled the matted hair away from my eyes. She saw my face, burning red and wet.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
I didn't know where to begin.
I had already completed my first year at the University of Michigan—my top choice school. I excelled in all of my classes, earning straight A's that seemed even easier to achieve than the ones I got at my super competitive high school in the Chicago suburbs. At U of M, there were riveting lectures from a world-renowned Shakespeare expert. Creative writing classes taught by actual authors of actual books. There was the town of Ann Arbor itself, artsy and bohemian, with bookstores and coffee shops and an old-fashioned movie theater.
These were the things I focused on when my parents called to ask how I was doing at school, and these were the things that helped me hide the fact that, since arriving at Michigan, I’d been feeling depressed, unlike anything I’d ever felt before.
Like so many others, reading the story behind University of Pennsylvania student Madison Holleran's suicide left me reeling. Holleran, a star on the track team, was a beautiful, smart 19-year-old girl who appeared to have a happy life—and the Instagram feed to prove it—before taking a running leap off a nine-story parking garage in downtown Philadelphia during her freshman year.
If you haven’t yet read Kate Fagan’s piece about Holleran for ESPN, please do. The piece takes a nuanced look at the effect of growing up in an Instagrammed world, one where grainy filters and refracted light can so easily hide a young person’s pain.
Facebook was in its earliest stages when I went off to college in 2004 (there was no such thing yet as a Facebook “Like”), so I can’t even pretend to understand what the rampant use of social media is like for students today. But I found myself relating to so much of Fagan’s piece, and these lines, in particular, hit hard: “And the most pressing thought of all: If she quit, wasn't she just a failure? Wouldn't that be the first in what would become a lifetime of letdowns?”
Nothing made me feel more like a failure than my first two years at college. I hadn’t made a single friend, not one, besides the one I came with—Lauren, my best friend from high school. It’s hard to express how grateful I still am to have had Lauren there with me. She offered me a system of support that so many others go without. But Lauren wasn’t entirely happy at Michigan either, and sometimes it felt like our friendship only further isolated us from the college social scene we were supposed to be a part of. We spent so many nights in one another’s rooms, talking about how hard it felt to connect with others, even among the thousands of kids in our class.
So it was no surprise when, at the end of freshman year, Lauren told me she was transferring schools. Her parents had only agreed to pay for her to attend a state school. She had thought Michigan would be worth the debt. It wasn’t. And she left. I remember feeling insanely jealous of her when she broke the news to me, because she had an acceptable reason to leave—money. My depression alone never felt like enough.
I spent the following summer at home, spending time with my high school friends and living in complete denial that I completely hated college. Telling anybody about it—especially my parents—felt too much like admitting there was something wrong with me. I was the kid who always did well in school. I was the kid who always had friends. I didn’t want to be the kid who, on her first venture out of the house, came crying back to mommy and daddy, unable to hack it on her own.
So I pretended I was just fine at Michigan. I focused on the positives—the academics! the ice cream machine!—instead of the nights suffering from insomnia, silently crying in my lofted bed while my perfectly adjusted roommate snored in hers. While my high school friends bragged about their plans for off-campus apartments sophomore year, I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I’d be living in the dorms, again, with a randomly assigned roommate, again. I had two semesters to make one friend. I may have been an English major, but I could do the math on that one: I failed.
When I got back to school sophomore year, Lauren-less in a freshman dorm, I sunk further and deeper into depression. I rarely left my room except to go to classes. The classes themselves no longer excited me. Nothing, in fact, ever excited me. And I didn’t tell anyone, until I did.
My mom and I agreed that I would go back to school on the condition that I would seek help from mental health services and, with a therapist, decide what was best. Back in my dorm, I filled out an online questionnaire required to make your first appointment with a counselor. On a scale of one to ten, I rated my happiness, my energy, my intake of alcohol, my willingness to do my favorite activities, my likeliness of hurting myself or others. I answered open-ended questions and shared details of my inner thoughts, the likes of which I’d never shared to any human being before. I hit submit and got an instant response:
Due to the fact that finals are approaching, all appointments are booked except in the case of an emergency.
It had taken me over a year to admit that my depression was a problem at all. It would have taken me a lot longer than that to admit it was an emergency. I still wonder how many students failed to get the help they needed because their psychiatric break just so happened to coincide with a set of tests.
In the end, I was lucky—incredibly so. I had parents who listened to me and took my mental health seriously, who offered up their home to me whenever I needed it, who encouraged me to make a decision based solely on my health and safety and not on the prestige of a future degree. For me, transferring schools was the answer. I got to my chosen next stop—a small art school back in Chicago—and thrived there in ways I never thought I could, from overcoming my lifelong shyness to getting my first taste of writing success.
But what works for one person will never work for everyone, and I don’t want to suggest that if she’d only transferred schools, Madison would still be here today. There are a million reasons why I would never equate my own story with Madison’s, including the fact that her experience with mental illness was singular and unique to her, and whatever she was going through, we know it was severe. We know it was severe for the more than 1,000 college students who commit suicide each year. And so the question is, what can we do?
We can retrospectively pick apart someone’s Instagram feed and find the clues that something was amiss. We can talk to friends and family members and try to find a logical answer to an inexplicable question. We can carry on the message of Madison’s family: “It's OK to not be OK. It's OK to show people you're not OK.”
But what can we do proactively?
It’s easy for me to imagine an alternate universe where my mother never found me on that couch, where she never put her hand on my face and urged me to talk. It’s easy to imagine my depression growing more and more severe, with my willingness to talk about it swallowed up in shame. It’s easy to imagine so many current students, unable to sleep in their lofted beds, hiding behind filters in an iPhone app, who don’t know why they feel the way they feel, and don’t know what to do.
What can we do for them?
I don’t know the answer, but here’s a start: We can demand more from our schools. We can fight to make sure mental health services are as easy to access as walking through the door. We can teach students what the symptoms of mental illness are and how to better recognize it in yourself or a friend. We can eliminate this thinking that mental illness is a sign of weakness, or that it’s anything other than a physical disease.
We can seek out people who might be struggling, squeeze next to them, and ask, “What’s wrong?”