College Re-Entry mentor Matt shares his story to empower students to fight the stigma surrounding mental health. The story was originally published in The Mighty.
Until my junior year at Vanderbilt, mental illness had never crossed my mind. I grew up with a privileged background and wanted to follow in my parents’ footsteps and become a corporate lawyer. My first episode of major depression and medical leave from school completely changed that. The struggle I experienced with my bipolar disorder over the next eight years opened my eyes, particularly to the unique challenges college students struggling with mental health face.
My difficulties and challenges were prolonged and made worse because I thought I was the only one going through this kind of depression. Now I know that a lot of people go through it, but at the time I knew no one else who was going through what I was going through. It made me feel like I was the only one who was experiencing depression and had to leave school. I also had no examples of people who had gone through it in college and come out the other side. No one I knew was talking about it.
“When you go back to school too soon, you can get trapped in a cycle of repeating patterns because you haven’t put in place the kinds of healthy routines and coping mechanisms you need to be successful.”
This created a sense of guilt within me that really perpetuated the symptoms of depression I was experiencing. I really wished I could have tapped into a community of people who were on a medical leave or who were thinking about one. Instead, I was isolated.
So I rushed back to school too soon, before I was fully stable and ready to handle the challenges of the academic environment. I did this because I was craving community and structure and didn’t have any. I was craving my college student identity and the feeling I wasn’t someone who was just ill and disordered. But it was too soon and I actually had to go on multiple leaves. When you go back to school too soon, you can get trapped in a cycle of repeating patterns because you haven’t put in place the kinds of healthy routines and coping mechanisms you need to be successful.
I wish I had found some kind of program to help me prepare to go back. It could have been really helpful. Programs like this are like training wheels. They allow you to “renormalize” and learn what it’s like to function as a student in society. They ease you back into school to give you a better chance of success. They also give you a community of people who are struggling with some of the same things you are so you don’t feel like the only one.
I want people to hear my story so they know they are not alone. Today, I am studying for my master’s degree in social work so I can get my license. I also mentor students enrolled in Fountain House’s College Re-Entry Program, which is exactly the kind of bridging program I could have used when I was in college.