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College Mental Health Expectations vs Reality

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As a highschooler in an affluent Chicago suburb, I always viewed college as my end goal. I saw every grade I received as either a point towards or against my college acceptance. The academic stress I had all throughout high school was so college focused, I thought that as soon as I got to college, all of my anxiety would magically evaporate. I now know that while my anxiety is often influenced by my environment, it is something that affects me no matter what.

Expectation: College is the secret to happiness. 

Reality: I am lucky enough to love where I go to college and do feel that it is the perfect place for me.* However, this does not mean I am not allowed to have bad days or difficult moments. When I first arrived at school and had my first hard day, I was so mad at myself. “How can you complain? Your high school self would not believe that you are complaining at your first-choice university! You have no right to be sad.” These were some of the guilty thoughts that were plaguing my mind. I felt that I had no right to have a bad day while I was at the university I had always dreamed of, especially while so many of my other friends were struggling at their colleges and did not wind up where they wanted. I learned that even though I am thankfully very happy at my university, have great friends, and am enjoying my classes, this does not mean that I need to be happy every single day, all of the time. This is an unrealistic expectation for anyone, especially for someone who historically struggles with anxiety and depression. It is natural that these mental health struggles will persist, even while in college. 

* There is absolutely no shame in not enjoying your college experience or finding that the school you chose to attend may not be the right place for you. Not everyone has the ‘perfect school’ for them and that is okay. Also, it is important to note that where you commit initially, does not need to be where you spend your whole college career.

Expectation: Once I make friends in college, I won’t have social anxiety anymore.

Reality: Everyone always talks about how making friends is hard. Meeting people, getting to know each other and reaching out are all skills that are challenging for many. But what about when all of your hard work pays off? Making friends that you like and connect with is one of the most rewarding feelings in the world. However, I find that even after hanging out and having a great time with people that I care about and feel comfortable around, I still have this lingering anxiety. My mind races with questions like, “What if they decide that they don’t like me? Did I say anything weird? Was I funny and outgoing enough?” I know that my racing thoughts after social interactions are not a response to how the interaction actually went, but rather because I suffer from anxiety and my mind is wired to always second guess these interactions. Once I was able to recognize this about myself, I was able to shift my thinking away from frustration about being anxious, and towards coming up with ways to cope with it. One strategy that I use is keeping a positive interaction tracker. I write down positive interactions that I have with people, so I can refer to it as ‘proof’ when I feel anxious about my friendships. 

Expectation: My academic stress from high school will go away once I am in college. 

Reality: In high school, getting into college was the goal that I channeled my academic anxiety towards. Once I got to college and still felt that impending stress about my next essay, I was confused. I tried to ask myself, “I am already in, what is there to worry about?” After all, the nature of my post graduation job ambitions is not heavily focused on grades. But my mind quickly came up with other things to worry about, like getting kicked out of college or my professor thinking the university accepted me by mistake. My drive to succeed and my anxiety about achieving success are not going away. They are part of who I am. So, I need to work on how I can healthily cope with this anxiety and prevent it from impeding my enjoyment of learning. One strategy that helps me is getting to know my professors. Taking advantage of office hours and speaking with them one on one humanizes them and helps me realize that they genuinely do want their students to succeed. Building relationships with professors is valuable for many other reasons; they often give great advice, have meaningful insight and can be incredible resources later in life. 

Mental illness manifests and affects people differently at various moments in life. It is important to acknowledge that anxiety and depression are not always environmental. Even if things are going really well and you are happy where you are, feelings of stress and sadness may not go away. Realizing this allowed me to leave behind my feelings of guilt and frustration with my mental health, and focus on positive coping mechanisms to navigate mental illness on my college campus. Set high expectations for your college experience. But don’t forget that mental illness may still be a reality for you in your new environment. Part of destigmatizing mental illness is emphasizing that it is possible to be happy and successful in college while simultaneously experiencing mental illness.

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