Writing this article is one of the most terrifying things I have ever done. Years of internalized stigma made me feel vulnerable to share my story. Even though I had depression and anxiety before coming to Andover, the culture here around mental illnesses made acknowledging my struggles feel almost impossible. This fall, I seriously considered taking a medical leave. I was only a few excused absences away from being asked to leave and repeat my Upper year over again or to drop out completely. I’m not really sure what it was exactly that made me feel even more miserable – the schoolwork, the overly ambitious atmosphere, the students, the faculty. I discounted my struggles and realized that I needed help only when I reached my breaking point.
I kept telling myself that I was just complaining and being too sensitive or that the stress was too much for me to handle. Upper Year was supposed to be this hard. Because of the intense workloads and my lack of free time, I found myself unable to employ the same coping mechanisms that I used before coming to Andover. I didn’t recognize this, however, because these feelings were not new to me. I didn’t believe I had the right to feel worse and postponed reaching out to my friends and teachers. I told myself that because I was privileged to even attend Andover, have loving friends, good grades and a supportive family, I shouldn’t feel this way. These struggles that I myself discounted seemed to only increase as I was unable to reach out for help. But why?
Stigma. The look in my teacher’s eyes when I didn’t hand in homework or come to class. The expectation to excel in all aspects of life that made me frustrated I lacked the motivation to do the simplest things, like getting out of bed or walking to the next class. So I didn’t say anything. I did not ask for help until I knew that if I didn’t, I would need to leave.
Because of the stigma that stopped me from reaching out until I had no choice, it felt almost impossible, when I did seek help, to fix what had been going on for so long. I had too many absences, even those excused, and was far too behind in schoolwork. I was unable to devote enough time to recovery and spend more time with my family because I had gotten help too late and fell short of too many responsibilities. Even accidentally sleeping through one more class or getting sick with the flu would result in my immediate dismissal. The medicine I was prescribed took at least a month of steadily increasing dosage to even begin to work, and when it did I had to deal with a myriad side effects.
When I finally reached out to the Sykes Center, my parents and my peers, these resources I had been avoiding saved me. I began to enjoy Andover again. I hope that I will feel better by graduation – an accomplishment that seemed unattainable just a few months ago. And if I don’t make it to graduation, I know that I will be okay either way. I’ve learned that it is imperative to admit that things are not all right. That is the only way to get better.
To students, faculty and staff: through this Wellness Week, you recognize mental illnesses and push the need to get help. But it is easier said than done, and there is more that needs to be done to counter the negative stigma of mental health at Andover. Don’t let that stigma, however, keep you like it kept me and don’t perpetuate it. People like me who talk about mental health should not be viewed as merely looking for sympathy, compliments and attention. It is our job as a part of the Andover community to stop subscribing to that. Life is hard, and nobody is perfect.
I too am guilty of perpetuating this stigma of seeing myself and my issues with mental health as weak and unfounded. But I try to stop it, not just for myself but for others. The way I had to deal with my illness was unnecessary and not worth going through. It was terrible. I would never wish it upon anyone else. The help is there in friends, teachers, counselors, etc. Because I received help, I am now able to stay in the classes that seemed impossible to keep up with before. I can graduate from a school that I enjoy with friends I love. So be well all, you can do it, help is worth it. Life can be good, don’t settle for less and whatever other cheesy thing to say.