Are Students Sacrificing Mental Health for a Diploma?

The Campus Mental Health Crisis

There’s a lot of messaging out there about college being the “best years of your life” and I have to admit that I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. If you’ve been reading along from the start, I’m sure you’re starting to get a better idea of how excited I was to go to college. Even though I’d been told how academically challenging it would be, I felt prepared to take that on.

What I wasn’t prepared for was how lonely it would be.

Making friends was really, really hard and homesickness hit me much more intensely than I’d expected it to. And of course I was worried about all the typical first gen things like money and imposter syndrome. But I didn’t have anyone on campus that I felt could relate to what I was going through. All these things spiraled into feelings of anxiety that I’d never experienced before starting college and instead of confronting it, I just worked harder. As I saw it, I’d come to college to do well regardless of my circumstances even if that meant I was wearing myself down.

I’m far from the only college student dealing with balancing my well being and academics: 1 in 3 college freshman struggle with their mental health and 64% of college dropouts surveyed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness said they left school for a mental health-related reason.

Things are starting to change in the ways we talk about and address young people’s mental health. Last year, Utah started allowing high school students to use mental health issues as a valid excuse for absence, and Oregon enacted a law that allows for mental health days. Steps like this are great because for a lot of people high school, and specifically the college admissions process, is when mental health issues rear their head.

What happens when you get to college and lose your safety net?

Colleges across the country are facing a campus mental health epidemic. My own university, Northeastern, doesn’t have a great reputation with students for providing adequate mental health resources, but it isn’t alone in under-serving its students. At Indiana University it can take up to 2 weeks to get an appointment with a mental health professional, according to Stat, and that’s not even the longest wait time described in that article.

There just aren’t enough trained counselors to address the growing need, and when colleges aren’t trying to put a band-aid over the issue with stress relief puppies during finals week or free yoga sessions, they’re upping the number of antidepressants they prescribe to students.

Lily Jackson (current reporter for AL.com, fellow ex-Chronicle intern, and friend-of-the-newsletter) requested records from over 100 universities, and found a large volume of antidepressants coming out of campus pharmacies.

Often it can feel like the only choice is to keep a stiff upper lip or drop out altogether. Far too often, first-gen students feel the choice has been made for them.

‘I was doing well academically but mentally I was really struggling’

When I launched First Gen last month, Dulce Marquez was one of the first people who reached out to me. She told me she was interested in being featured in the newsletter to share how her struggles with depression have shaped her college career.

Dulce is a Mexican-American, first-generation college student from Harlem whose currently in the Global Liberal Studies program at NYU. Like our last student spotlight, she got college prep support from SEO Scholars, a nonprofit that supports low-income students. For Dulce, the journey to college has been a winding one. After getting into NYU with a full-tuition scholarship, she realized she had mental health issues she wasn’t confronting and decided to take a leave of absence before she could complete the first semester of her freshman year.

She’s back in the classroom now and she took the time to tell me what her medical leave taught her about resiliency and higher education.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can read our full conversation here.

ZO: What was getting into college like?

DM: The college process was so overwhelming because that’s when my depression really started to come up. It was beautiful to be accepted at NYU because I’m a first generation Mexican American so telling my parents, especially my dad, that his dream of me going to college was going to happen. But in all honesty, my grades dropped a lot senior year even after I was accepted at NYU because I had this depression I wasn’t dealing with.

ZO: How did your first semester go?

DM: I was doing well academically but mentally I was really struggling. There were times that I would be crying in class because I could feel inside myself that I wasn’t well.

The problem was I’d had these feelings of depression since I’d been applying to schools and had just been ignoring it. At one point the counselor at the wellness center suggested taking medical leave. I remember in that moment thinking, “That sounds like the most appealing option because I don’t understand what’s going on with me.”

ZO: During that year away did you have the resources that you needed to get back into the classroom?

DM: I had the motivation for sure. I saw a therapist which helped a lot but I was working very hard in that year off so I could make up for the fact that I wasn’t in school. I would have two internships and one job so I could be occupied and justify not being in school in my mind. So unfortunately I was being very critical of myself. For a long time I wasn’t able to forgive myself for trying to take care of myself.

Even now that I’m back there’s a lot going on and I’m having trouble adjusting but I’m keeping in communication with my advisor and the people that I need to because I want this to work out. It’s a constant struggle.

ZO: Why did you want to share this with me and the people reading?

DM: It’s mentally difficult coming back, but during the year away something I really learned was that the journey after high school is different for everyone else. The push is four years in high school and the next four years in college. Although that’s the ideal, it doesn’t happen to everyone. Obviously it didn’t happen with me.

It was important to share that because I think knowing that would’ve made me feel much better and not put so much pressure on myself. The pressure is higher when you’re a first-generation college student or a first-generation Mexican American. The bar is higher so the pressure is higher, but it’s okay to need time to work through that.

This week’s newsletter was supposed to come out last Friday but, truth be told, I had a lot of trouble writing it because (surprise, surprise) I was dealing with my own mental health veering out of control. The stress of graduation, and life in general, was getting to me and writing about dealing with anxiety when I felt like I was drowning in my own was the absolute last thing I wanted to do.

When I told Dulce that I’d have to postpone our interview, she was more than understanding and reminded me that taking time to care for my mental health wasn’t something to apologize for. Coming from a fellow first-gen student who knows what it means to struggle when you feel you have no room to, it meant a lot.

Good reads:

  • “Therapy for the Snapchat Generation,” by Alexander C. Kafka for The Chronicle of Higher Education
  • “No One Likes the Real Me!” by Heather Havrilesky for The Cut
  • “The Spooky, Loosely Regulated World of Online Therapy,” by Molly Osberg and Dhruv Mehrotra for Jezebel
  • “To pay for college, more students are promising a piece of their future to investors,” by Caroline Preston for The Hechinger Report

Thanks for reading,

Zipporah

If you are, or know of, a first generation college student who’d like to be featured in future editions of this newsletter, email me at zipporah@firstgennews.com.

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