Anxiety plagues a growing number of college students. In 2016, the American College Health Association found that almost 20 percent of college students were diagnosed with anxiety —
nearly one in five students, which has only increased from previous years. Whether it’s a product of the expectations placed on us, the looming threat of our student loans or some other combination of events that we are faced with, anxiety poses a threat to our collective wellbeing.
The term "anxiety" is a part of our everyday language. We often say things like, “this test is giving me anxiety” without thinking. Anxiety has unintentionally become trivialized as another synonym for stress, so it’s easy to overlook the fact that it is an actual issue. It is a real disorder with serious effects on the people that have it, especially in a situation already infused with inherent stress like college.
In order to bring this issue more to light, I interviewed a women named Julie, whose lifelong anxiety ramped up to a debilitating level during her time in college. She agreed to share her story, to give her own personal experiences and offer her advice to others facing similar challenges today.
Describing the circumstances behind her anxiety, she said, “I had panic attacks my whole life. I was sick a lot as a kid, and my mom was a nurse, [so] I was put through a lot of unnecessary testing."
Her anxiety worsened in high school, but without any past exposure to mental health disorders, she had no idea what she was facing or how to deal with it.
"I actually diagnosed myself with panic attacks my junior year in a psych[ology] class. Our teacher made us watch a Phil Donahue episode about panic attacks, and I vividly remember sitting at my desk watching and having this huge revelation, 'Oh my God, I'm not actually dying. This is what is happening to me,'" Julie said.
Too embarrassed to share her feelings with her family or friends, she suffered in silence for a long time. When she got to college, a series of events caused a chain reaction that brought her anxiety to a whole new level of intensity.
“The summer after my freshman year, I dated a man who was 26. I ignored lots of warning signs — [the] scars on his wrists, [the fact that] he was very clingy and very controlling. At the end of [that] summer I got a call from his sister, who was my age. He had overdosed and tried to kill himself by jumping off the roof. I had no idea that he was a [diagnosed] sociopath, and a drug addict and alcoholic. Being me, I thought I was in love and wanted to help him. My mom was actually amazing and she took me to talk to a psychologist just so I could hear what it meant to be a sociopath, and what a future would look like with one. So, I went back to [school] and tried to distance myself," Julie said.
Even after putting over 1,000 miles between them, she could not escape this man's attention.
"He sent me expensive gifts and romantic letters to try to sway me. He [even] asked me to marry him! I finally stopped taking his calls or listening to his long messages. That's when he figured out that in my dorm the phone numbers corresponded to the room numbers. He called every room in my dorm and told everyone that he'd given me AIDS," Julie said.
It didn't stop there.
"He sent me letters and messages detailing locations on campus and said he was watching me. He called my parents in the middle of the night and ranted about how horrible I was. They found butts from his brand of cigarettes outside my bedroom window." When she sought help from the Dean of Students about it, he gave her nothing but the distinctly useless advice to 'never go anywhere alone.' When her parents refused to involve the police out of fear of worsening the situation, she felt she was trapped in a dangerous situation far from home, her anxiety the only one taking her problem seriously," Julie explained.
It was at this point that she decided she had to get help for the sake of her mental stability.
“I went to one of my Psych professors and begged him for a referral a therapist. At that point I had already gone to the Emergency Room twice for acute panic attacks, and had received no care, not even a referral for mental health care. [I was] just [told] the not so helpful advice "Try not to stress out so much." Fortunately, my professor referred me to an excellent psychologist who practiced cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)," Julie said.
Sadly, her work with the psychologist was not enough to bring her back in all aspects of her life.
"I was never able to recover my grades. Incompletes turned into F's. At this point my parents cut me off financially, assuming that I was 'partying' or 'not taking school seriously enough.' The reality was that I was barely hanging on and working really hard with my therapist to get to the point that I could leave my dorm room," Julie explained.
However, her recovery presented itself in other, arguably more significant ways.
"I started seeing improvement after about six months of CBT. My psychologist supported me through my decision to drop out of school and get a job, even when my parents cut me off and I couldn't afford to pay for therapy. Becoming independent from my family was the best choice I could have ever made. It gave me the self confidence I needed,” Julie said.
Decades after the fact, she is able to look at her experiences in a new light, “Looking back on it now that I'm the parent of college age kids I have a completely different viewpoint. For years I beat myself up about dropping out. I felt like a failure. Now I see that I was a kid. A kid who needed help and resources that just didn't exist at the time. I'm proud of the 19-year-old me who reached out to a college professor for help. I've had a wonderful, happy life. I don't look back with regrets, instead I view my personal experiences as lessons and I take the good out of the bad."
She believes that if she was going through what she had gone to in today's more mental health conscious environement, things might have gone differently.
"It's not 1990 anymore, and there are so many resources available now. In today's world no student should have to drop out [like I did] in order to receive the care they need. My best advice for students that are struggling is to reach out. Take advantage of campus counseling centers. Don't be afraid to talk to that professor or mentor that you feel a connection with. That's what ultimately saved me. [So] advocate for yourselves, avail yourselves of the help that exists and, finally, stay in school kids,” Julie said.
Her specific experience may not be universal, but her struggle with anxiety is something that many college students will be afflicted with at some point during their time in school. What matters is that it is acknowledged and validated, that outside help is found and that getting healthy is prioritized. This should be done whether that means talking to a therapist or, if it really comes down to it, taking a break from school (though this is not highly recommended). Anxiety is a serious thing, but Julie’s story shows that it can be dealt with, and a good life can be led even by those who suffer from it.
Lead Image Credit: qimono via pixabay