Dark Matter: Being Honest About Depression

Depression affects college students to a stunning degree, but we don't make it easy to talk about.
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Depression affects college students to a stunning degree, but we don't make it easy to talk about.
Depression

It took me until earlier this week to realize I didn’t introduce myself properly in my last post. In case you missed it, I wrote last week about the language we use to describe plus-size women, which got some thoughtful responses from you. 

You might know me from the “Outfits Under $100” column, where I help you put together outfits for under $100. But in my second regular column - this one - I aim to cover some heavier topics that affect CF readers (including me) but don’t necessarily fit in CF’s usual fashion and beauty coverage. My goal is to tap into what’s relevant in fashion, beauty, and cultural circles to bring what’s most pressing to the table.

This week, I thought I’d offer myself up. Over the last month, I have been struggling through the worst period of depression in my life, caused in part by a breakup but also part of a larger pattern of depression I’ve dealt with for most of my life. And it will most likely not be my last, because that is simply how depression works.

Many of the points I’ll be making about depression have been made before, but I think it’s important to make them again and again in face of toxic misconceptions about happiness and mental illness, and on behalf of people like me who have to work through the self-blame that comes with depression. Depression and anxiety are both common in college students, and several news stories of students committing suicide already stick out in our recent memory.

sunset

A large part of the problem is this culture that attaches value judgments to happiness and depression, as if they’re necessarily mutually exclusive. There are the cheery graphics on Instagram and aphorisms that imply we’re responsible for our own happiness (and by extension, depression). The level of personal responsibility pushed down on people with depression and anxiety disorders is astounding. The idea that people with depression should be expected to reason themselves out of it not only comes from a harmful and ignorant place, but needs to be re-examined if we’re going to truly confront this issue.

When you’re a college student, there’s little space for your feelings. There is little time to carve out for self care. Deadlines, exams, emails, and obligations pile up around you. You might agree to meetings and hanging out as a stab at being functional, but you have to add two or three hours to first get yourself out of bed and then prep. If you’re like me, being functional during these periods becomes brushing your teeth or showering, while leaving your feelings for another day.

Showing up is a victory, a small one in the face of relentless expectations and a culture largely intolerant of mental illness, but it takes all you have. The struggle of wanting to be successful, of having our work so intimately connected to who we are and our self-esteem is very real, and made all the more difficult by a culture that rewards pushing ourselves beyond reasonable limits yet punishes us for being human. There’s that constant pressure to be “on” or professional all the time, even as most of our mornings are spent trying to get out of bed or into real clothes.

A lot of depression, at least for me, involves carrying on with my regular life while pushing back against the need to wallow and crawl back into my hole. It also means trying to reason away the feeling that I have let everyone in my life down, professors, editors, and friends included.

The failure to simply notice exists on several levels, from the friends who miss the signs or simply stop noticing after you insist you’re okay to school administrations that simply do not value mental health. Campus resources for mental health may exist, but students might not use them because of persistent stigma and shame for seeking help, or because those resources are simply not promoted. While my professors were understanding of my situation, there are several professors out there who consider depression and anxiety a failure to suck it up and don’t accept either as a legitimate reason to miss class or fall behind on assignments.

Trees

I didn’t intend on writing about something as complex and sobering as depression, but it’s been the topic that’s been on my mind in the last week. And once I explained to my professors and editors what was going on, I was surprised by the number of personal experiences that they shared with me. Depression affects so many people, particularly students, but the pressure to keep it a secret persists. I wrote this post because as one of my professors said, simply connecting with others could help. I hope this post will help inspire others to do the same.