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Mental Illness at College: My Story & What You Can Do

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What is your strongest memory of college? Is it the late nights spent hanging out with friends? Is it your experience with Greek life? Is it the romantic relationships forged there?

For me, and the many, many people who suffer from mental illness at a young age, those memories are a bit different. My strongest memory was the anxiety that came from there not being enough hours in the day. It was sitting by the computer writing papers when others were out socializing on the weekends. It was hiding in my room when the pressure of college life was too much.

My Story

I spent my first two years of college at the local community college. There were lots of benefits of that. It was way cheaper, and I could just take a relatively short drive from my parents house to campus. I could still work at the job I started in high school to save a little money. I loved it.

For my second two years, I decided to go away.  I’m not sure what led me to make that decision, to be completely honest.  Maybe it was the fact that my younger sister was about to go away for her first year of college.  Maybe it was a desire for independence. Maybe it was wanting some normalcy after a young adulthood plagued by depression.  I began experiencing symptoms of depression when I was 9 years old after a tragic family loss. So really, it’s like it’s all I’ve ever known.  Maybe I just wanted to feel the way I imagined someone my age should feel.

I really noticed my mental illness my senior year (my second year living away).  I was taking heavy course loads, full of classes that involved long lectures and a lot of paper writing.  I wrote so many papers that year. Throughout all that, I still found time to be active in my sorority, and write two full length novels.

Yep.  I wrote 2 novels.  While taking 18 credit hours.  And acting as academic chair for our sorority.  And traveling home every other weekend to see my boyfriend.  I don’t know if I ever expected them to be published or not. One of the tell-tale symptoms of bipolar disorder is experiencing racing thoughts.  I had so much swirling around in my brain that a lot of it ended up getting typed in story form. I would get these brief, vivid images, and I used those as jumping off points for organizing a plot.

These novels were not good, and were never destined to win Nobel prizes. Be that as it may, they became something I obsessed over in between and sometimes during class.  I managed to graduated with honors, which makes it seem like I was very dedicated to my studies. But really, I did the bare minimum, and was lucky to have a certain natural aptitude for paper writing.

In Retrospect

Looking back, I should have seen the signs.  I was already being treated for depression, and had not yet been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  (This was 2007 and 2008, and I received my bipolar diagnosis in 2010). But I think it’s a very rare mentally healthy person who can balance all that.  And truthfully, it wasn’t genuine balance. Balance is devoting equal time and energy to a variety of things. What I was doing was juggling a bunch of ceramic plates that were lit on fire, all while wading in a shallow pool of gasoline.  It was only a matter of time before I dropped one.

I was in such a bad place by the time I graduated that I couldn’t sit through my graduation ceremony.  I started to have a massive panic attack. Looking back, I think I was finally cracking under the weight of my emerging hypomania. Mania is a phase of bipolar disorder that involves higher amounts of energy, racing thoughts, and less need for sleep.  Hypomania is simply a less severe form of that. It is something that I would carry into my post-college life.

Since College

I have come a long way since then, but my journey has not been without its ups and downs.

  • At the end of 2008, I got engaged to the boy I would drive home from college every other weekend to visit.  
  • In 2009, I began to alienate myself from certain loved ones and I was quite cruel to lots of people.
  • In March 2010, I got married.
  • In 2010, after losing my job due to symptoms of a mental illness that I didn’t even know I had yet, I was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
  • In the fall of 2010, I was suicidal for the first time that I can recall.
  • I went through a period where I stopped taking medication for a couple years.  I thought I was totally fine and didn’t need it. This is more common than people realize.
  • The summer of 2014, I got pregnant with our first child, and she was born in April 2015.
  • When she was about 5-6 months old, I was suicidal again, and seriously considered taking my own life.  I felt crushed by the expectations of new motherhood, and I decided to re-enter treatment.
  • In March of 2016, I got pregnant with our second child.  She was born in December 2016.
  • I have had some ups and downs since then, but mostly downs, so I in June 2019, I started seeing a therapist again.  I have been medicated since fall of 2015, but it has been a while since I’ve been in therapy. I am encouraged, and looking forward to where this journey takes me.

What You Can Do

The lessons I want you to take from this story are:

  1. Mental illness is not some cut and dry, point A to point B journey.  You are not always sad. You are not always manic. You are sometimes quite happy and stable.  Sometimes, you even fear getting stable again because you are afraid of getting well and then sinking back into the hole you just worked hard to crawl out of.  It is a winding, twisted journey that never ends.
  2. That being said, you can have a very fulfilling life, even if you do find yourself diagnosed with a mental illness.  I am married to a wonderful person, and we have two amazing kids. I am really very lucky, but I also work hard to stay well.  If you have been diagnosed recently, and are scared about your prognosis, I want you to know that a good life is possible. You will not feel happy every day.  You will possibly have periods of profound darkness. But you can rise above it. You can be in love. You can have children. You can find meaningful work. You can move past your fear of the unknown.
  3. If you think you are developing signs of depression or another mental illness, do not be afraid to reach out for help.  Start by telling a parent or a friend. There are also a lot of great resources for young people out there.
    1. https://www.crisistextline.org/suicide You can go to this site and learn about how you can text a crisis line if you feel like you need to talk to a professional.  They are available 24/7
    2. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/cryforhelp/featured/resources-hotlines-and-web-sites-for-teens/11/ has some resources and chat sections for teens experiencing depression.
    3. https://teenlineonline.org/ This site is run by teens who want to help other teens going through a tough time, which I think is a really great concept.
  4. Do not be afraid of what people will think of you.  There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, but something important to remember is: You are not alone.  You have nothing to be ashamed of. You can get through this.

My memories of my college years may be marred by my struggles with a mood disorder, but at the end of the day, I am alive.  I am well. And I will survive.


Jennifer Van Haitsma

Guest Blogger

Jen (the writer behind the blog, Diffusing the Tension) lives in Northwest Indiana with her husband and two children (ages 4 and 2). She has bipolar disorder and frequently writes about her experiences with that. In her spare time, she is a bookworm, TV junkie, and fitness nut. You can follow her on:

Instagram- @diffusing_the_tension

Facebook- Diffusing the Tension

Pinterest- @diffusingthetensionblog

Her blog- www.diffusingthetension.com


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