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Normalizing mental health in college

By Maggie Donner, Features Contributor

As spring turns into summer, many college students will be moving out and finishing another year; this year, I am one of those students. The college experience is one that I heard many stories about from the adults in my life. It was glamorized in some ways, but I had no idea what to realistically expect. However, after my first two months away, I quickly realized that my college experience was painting a picture that no one told me about.

For context, I am a biology major with hopes of one day becoming a physician’s assistant, and I didn’t really have much knowledge on what my life would look like as a biology major until I was thrown into it. The first semester was a fever dream; it felt like I was living in a fantasy world. College was exciting and new — I was able to meet new people and make friends that were from different places with different experiences. It was a semester that feels fake as I look back on it. I constantly ask myself, “Did that really happen?”

The second semester hit me like a slap in the face. I came back for the spring, and a new reality set in. Classes got harder, and my brain started to become my enemy. I was doing more work than ever before and not seeing the results. I would tell myself in the mirror out loud, “Maggie, you need to put on a smile and a happy face: You are in college and no one feels like you do,” and I honestly thought that.

These feelings of anxiety were the first I had ever experienced in my life, and I constantly beat myself up for feeling that way. I pushed these feelings down because I didn’t want others to see that I was having a hard time. So many people told me, “College years areis the best years of your life and nothing matters. Enjoy it!” Yet I felt the opposite. I was having fun, but I was also constantly in fight-or-flight mode. The mask of normalcy slowly began to fade away, and I realized that I no longer could hide and pretend like everything was okay.

About halfway through the semester, I dove into self-care and therapy after hitting a breaking point with the stress I felt. Therapy is something that I was terrified to tell others about, thinking it showed too much vulnerability and showed weakness. I later realized how wrong these ideas were. In fact, meetings with my therapist are one of the things I look forward to the most during my stressful weeks. I learned how important positive self-talk is to building self-confidence and facing anxiety. I also learned to think of anxiety as a friend rather than a weakness.

My anxiety is a friend who wants to protect me, but I usually don’t need that protection. Telling anxiety to take a break is important. This shift in my self-talk began my journey in rebuilding self-confidence and helped me to break the cycle of fighting with my brain. I also learned meditation, and getting off my phone played a key role in getting me to a place where I am equipped to cope with these feelings. I can proudly say now I have gotten through this hard time, but it was a difficult journey to get here.

As I have gone through this process of rediscovering myself, I gained more perspective on how some ideas of college that are put on many students aren’t healthy. These ideas force many students into a box of what college should look like; however, the college experience is different for everyone.

Normalizing mental health and feelings of stress and anxiety needs to be prioritized. The more and more people I’ve talked to, it has shown me that I’m not alone — many have experienced similar feelings to mine. Shedding light on mental health in college to have meaningful conversations has been a goal of mine throughout the year.

While it seems like my second semester was full of stress, I was able to make so many awesome memories with my friends. I am lucky to be surrounded with people at school who allow me to “debrief” and talk about how I feel. In life, it is important to find small moments of happiness in the struggle. Once learning this perspective, I was able to find so many more things to be proud of and grateful for.

So to all the college students, high school seniors entering college and even adults outside of college, my advice to you is to find joy in the stressful moments. Also, write your own story independent of anyone else. It is okay to be scared, to feel nervous or to not be happy all the time. Normalizing these ideas is important in allowing people to share their experiences more openly. College is the time to figure yourself out and live life to the fullest. It is a time where growth comes out of struggles, and it’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, everything will be okay.

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