Eighteen months ago, I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), anxiety, and depression.
Let’s back up. I am six weeks away from graduating. I have accepted a full time job at a company I am excited to work for. I have a solid core group of friends and a happy family. I spend time with my suitemates and friends, love to read, and breezed through high school with all A’s. But this is all on the surface.
What people couldn’t see, even my best friend from home, even my parents, was the me who struggled to stay focused on one homework subject for more than thirty minutes. Whenever I started working on one assignment, I would suddenly remember something else that I desperately needed to do. I couldn’t go back to the first thing I was working on until I added the just remembered task to my To Do list. This went on and on until it was hours later, I had a million Chrome tabs open, and my To Do list filled up the front and back of a piece of paper.
I want to use my personal experiences as a catalyst to start the conversation about mental health, especially as it relates to engineering. I felt so alone with my problems for such a long time. But after I got the help that I needed, I started to open up to my friends, and even to strangers, about my struggles with ADD, anxiety, and depression.
What I found out surprised me. So many of the people that I talked with had also had been dealing with similar problems. Some of them had just started their journeys. Others had been handling them for years. I was stunned. Many of my friends and peers were struggling with the same problems that I was, and yet, I had no idea.
Talking with other people about mental health challenges is something that I go out of my way to do. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation to realize that you have more in common with someone than you thought.
My goal is to break down the barriers that surround talking about mental health. To allow those who are struggling or those who are watching someone else struggle to not be afraid to speak up and speak out regarding their experiences and their feelings. I want people to know that it’s okay to ask for help.
I think that my personal struggles were perpetuated by the demanding environment of an engineering education and the ambition of the culture and people around me. At Olin, we all try to do everything, from school work to clubs to having a social life. But the truth is, you can’t do it all. There are only so many hours in a day and when you take time out to sleep, because yes, even engineering students need sleep, you will find that you HAVE to give some things up. Maybe you don’t need to get an A in every class. Maybe it’s okay if you are just a member of the club and not the president. You get more out of everything you do when you focus on a few activities and don’t spread yourself too thin.
People take on too many things, there are too many meetings, and we all have too much work. Engineering students, as well as many other STEM students, seem to have a culture of perfectionism built into them. Students will compare their busy schedules; whoever got the least amount of sleep wins. No one ever talks about their problems. To do so would be a gross sign of weakness.
It took me a long time to reach out and get the help I needed. Too long. I spent almost every night during my sophomore year curled up in my boyfriend’s bed, sobbing uncontrollably. Nothing he said or did could make my tears stop, but his presence made me feel better. I had enough experience with these nights to know that when the sun came up, these feelings would go away. At least, until the next night.
I went on feeling this way, barely scraping by, for an entire year. I got a C- and a D in the two classes I was taking in my major. I knew that something was wrong. I knew that Olin students had access to mental health resources and therapists. But I was scared. I was terrified of what these experts would see when they talked with me. What they would say.
I did finally take the steps to make that first appointment, but it was not something that I did on my own. It took support and urging from my friends, who could tell that I wasn’t feeling or acting my best. It took me going to StAR, sitting in someone’s office while they put the phone on speaker and left that first message on Colony Care’s answering machine on my behalf.
I started weekly therapy sessions. Less than a month later, I met with a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with ADD, anxiety, and depression. To hear her pronounce all three of these diagnoses was terrifying. After my appointment, I sat in the car and sobbed for about 15 minutes. I thought about my reaction and realized that these weren’t tears of sadness. They were tears of relief. Someone else had finally been able to see inside me, and now, I was going to get the help that I needed. This was the last moment that I had to feel alone, hopeless and helpless, surrounded by my problems.
I think a big part of going to therapy is knowing what you are there for. You want to be clear about how you are feeling and what you want to walk out of your sessions with. I had thought that I was struggling with depression — that was why I had gone to therapy in the first place — but to have another person, a doctor, spend less than half an hour with me and pronounce these diagnoses was both terrifying and liberating.
I thought I didn’t have time to invest every week into my mental health. I mean, I was barely able to finish my homework on time! But looking back, I realize that I was wasting more time by not getting the help that I needed. Every tearful night spent struggling through or ignoring my homework was time that I should have redirected to caring for myself, to feeling better.
My father once sent me an email that said: “With engineering, as in life, some things will come naturally to you and others will be more of a struggle.” My mental health problems have caused many daily tasks to be more of a struggle for me.
I am still learning to cope with my mental health problems. The best strategy I have found for myself is making sure to clear out some personal time in my schedule. This means I set myself a “meeting curfew” at 10pm and block off the time on my calendar. This means every week I see my therapist and I also make sure to get out of the bubble and spend time off campus. Having this time to myself is very important. I look forward to it and I crave it.
The semester after I started therapy and medication, I got three A’s and one B, a huge improvement over almost failing one of my courses the semester before. I’ve gotten better at recognizing my feelings and knowing my triggers, and I have come up with personal coping techniques to help. Over the past year, I have been able to feel myself returning to the person I used to be.
I know my journey isn’t over yet. And it likely won’t ever be. Mental health issues are known for sticking around. I have continued to see my therapist weekly and meet monthly with my psychiatrist to check on my medication. But I still have bad nights sometimes, and there are still some days where I can’t convince myself to get out of bed. With the help and support of my therapist, friends, and family, I know that these bad times are only temporary. One bad day doesn’t undo all the progress I have made. My mental health issues do not define me.
Want to know how my experiences compare to other Oliners? Ask them! I encourage each one of you to help break down the stigmas surrounding mental health. Open up a dialogue on campus. Talk to your friends, your family, your classmates, your coworkers. Ask someone how they are feeling, and then really listen to their response.
In February, I sent out a survey asking how students wanted to engage in the discussion about mental health. Fifty-seven of you responded. Here’s a small bit of what you said:
- 33 (63.5%) wanted to hear others’ experiences
- 21 (40.4%) wanted to have an open discussion
- 20 (38.5%) wanted to read a Frankly Speaking article (Here you go!)
- 15 (28.8%) wanted to share your own experiences
- 12 (23.1%) wanted to write about your own experiences
What I want everyone to take away from this article is that it’s okay to ask for help. Moving forward, let’s talk (and listen!) to each other. Join me this Wednesday at SLAC for an open discussion about mental health from 7pm-9pm. Feel free to find me on campus or email me, anonymously if you want, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
<< This article is edited from a speech I wrote for an event called ‘Square WomEng Hear + Now: College Edition’ which took place on August 11, 2016 in in San Francisco, California. Read more about that event here: https://squarewomenghearnowcollegeedit.splashthat.com/ >>