The semester has not yet started, and already the campus is heavy and quiet with the tragedy of a student death. It is in these moments, when we are collectively stunned, that William & Mary comes together and becomes its strongest—students supporting one another, administrators reaching out, counseling services on-call.
But just because we are collectively grieving does not mean there is not a greater issue, the proverbial elephant in the room looming over our heads.
The issue of mental health on campus has long been a delicate one—William & Mary has, in its past, been wrongly christened a “suicide school”. While students here do not commit suicide at any higher rate than average, it is no secret that suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students and third among men and women ages 15-24. Given the heavy stigma that illnesses like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder carry with them, along with the still more delicate issue of suicide, we are forever walking on eggshells while never fully recognizing a problem exists.
I will readily admit that I am one of the 25% of college students who have struggled with mental illness—though the term is, to me, unnecessarily clinical. I lived with depression from ages 15-19, and still manage an anxiety disorder. It has only been with the help and support of my friends, sorority, and family, as well as medication and visits to the counseling center, that I learned how to live comfortably with my tumultuous brain. The greatest obstacle for me was my own ignorance of these imbalances, and instead thought that it was normal to feel lonely and stressed on a regular basis. Only now, looking back as a healthy and happy person, do I realize it wasn’t.
I never thought depression or anxiety could happen to me because I didn’t fit the “stigma”—I’m an outgoing, high achieving, highly involved person with a passion for puppies, hiking, and cupcakes. I didn’t spend my days crying into a five gallon tub of ice cream on the couch; I showered regularly and straightened my hair. I laughed and smiled outwardly–the biggest indicator that anything was wrong was that while I appeared outwardly healthy, my insides felt empty.
During my sophomore year, I made weekly visits to the counseling center, eventually seeking a private psychologist during the summer before my junior year. I had to learn to come to terms with anxiety and depression—to accept them as part of my past and present, and to move forward with my future. It was a long process, and I don’t think I could have done these things without the unconditional support of my close friends, my family, and my counselor. What I have learned here, as a senior, is that so many others struggle similarly and never tell—because there is this idea that to be depressed, to be suicidal, bulimic, or bipolar is to be somehow flawed; to be somehow beyond help. But no one is ever beyond help.
I share my story in hopes that it can somehow help others who may be struggling with undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses, for those who feel alone, for those who think, as I once did, that they are flawed. The best thing that we can do to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health is to be honest about what we are going through. Every student here is woven into the fabric that renders William &Mary the incredible community that it is; every student has a place, a story, someone who needs them.
For every member of the Tribe that has taken his or her own life—they will not be forgotten. For those who may be quietly struggling, I understand, and we will stand by you as you find the support you need. One Tribe, One Family—we will carry each other towards the bright futures that wait for us, one step at a time.