- Age 40. It’s my birthday. I want it to be perfect, but no one is listening to what I want or need, and I don’t matter. My mom, who has begun to show signs of Parkinson’s disease, has—through no fault of her own—told guests three different start times and locations for my birthday party. Recognition of her illness burns. We miss picking up my birthday cake because church went late. The day starts to unravel, so I text all my guests to stay home. My brain with a sinister sophistication convinces me that I am a terrible person, undeserving of love and happiness, I spiral. I want to suffer. Self-hatred is flammable, and I am doused in it. I burn my wrist with a discarded cigarette butt so that the physical pain distracts me from the mental anguish. This time, it’s not enough. I take a handful of too many medications, and I am at peace for the first time in weeks. I pray God will forgive my selfishness. Because I need to matter. I find it poetic to die on my birthday, but instead overdosing diverts me in a mental hospital for a week. I sit among the ashes of my life. When I look in the mirror, the image is as crowded and tortured as a Hieronymus Bosch tableau. No birthday cake would ever fix that.
I wish that I could say my journey through mental illness is unique, but it is not. The latest statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health reveal mental illnesses affects tens of millions of Americans, or as many as 1 in 6 persons. Mental illness describes a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder that can trigger mild to severe impairment, with more serious or chronic mental illnesses interfering with life activities and often leading to permanent disability–for me, this manifests as mild obsessive compulsive disorder, PTSD, anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder of the severe depression-hypomania variety. I have both unlucky genes and traumatic experiences to thank for these conditions.
- Age 27. I sleep a few hours a night, but I am hardly tired. I work 12 hour days, six to seven days a week as a young journalist. I go running after midnight. I return to my apartment to work on my latest DIY project, craft, decorate, plan elaborate dinner parties and sit in online chat rooms until morning. Rinse and repeat. Except it’s no longer enough, so now I have resorted to questionable meet ups in questionable neighborhoods with questionable strangers and their questionable pasts. In the middle of the night, alone. The risk is addictive.
Most alarming and particular to our campus community is that college-aged adults are more susceptible to mental health illnesses than any other age group, particularly if they are female, belong to an ethnic or racial group that stigmatizes mental illness, or involuntarily hide a non-cis or non-hetero identity. Furthermore, 18-to-25-year-olds are the least-likely age group to seek treatment for mental health.
Given that college life can be a slowly simmering “misery stew”–interpersonal relationship-building with roommates and first loves, cultural isolation, homesickness, academic stress, athletic demands, worry of economic and vocational prospects, sleep deprivation, body image distortion and sometimes even sexual violation–why does it feel like we aren’t taking mental illness seriously enough on campus? Why are we not more nervous–and therefore more proactive? Despite even rock-solid faith and gratitude-first thinking that reminds one of God’s blessings, the misery stew can still boil over.
- Age 22. Lights extinguished. Backed into a corner. Scissors clutched. I have no better weapon in the bedroom that I am renting a mile from campus. Blood pounds in my skull with a stubborn determination to survive. The sound of my own breath startles me, so I hold it, as if underwater, though my body is dry, save for a dripping brow and sticky underarms. I can’t reach up from my protective crouch to close the high, small window, with its lace curtain indifferently fluttering from the peninsular breeze. I am certain I will perish, so I pray for courage and peace. I remember that I still have to write a paper on British Romantic Edmund Burke. I gasp for air. I figure I might as well die while writing.
During my darkest days, PLNU saved me. It sounds dramatic, but there was a culture on campus in which faculty and staff didn’t only teach me topical knowledge in my disciplines but regarded my wellness as paramount, so I never fell through the cracks. People who were smarter and wiser than I with seeming endless compassion were present for a pep talk, hug, advice, an invitation to tea on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, extra grading assignments when I needed lunch money, slow conversations about whom and where we come from and what we wanted to become, a steady hand on my back as I journeyed through a crisis of faith and prayer—always a lot of prayer. In other words, I was no less than raised by the remarkable people with whom I interacted daily on campus. They didn’t just see me. They reacted.
We are facing a virtual reckoning with mental illness on campus, and it is a matter of life and death. Students tell me they don’t belong. They look across campus, and they don’t feel kinship but otherness. I fear that we may have wandered away from this radical care of our students. I think that we have stopped listening as well as we used to–yet the stakes couldn’t be higher for them.
One doesn’t have to look much farther than the creeping statistics on suicides and suicide-attempts of our students and young alumni, or the year’s most heartbreaking story about how virtually our entire campus failed to see and intervene when a student was sick and then allegedly abused by one of our own. If that is not a failure of the type of vigilance and protection that my fellow faculty, staff and I are here to do, I don’t know what is.
- Age nine. I reach the end of another sidewalk on my short trek between school and home. Time to turn around before crossing the street to ensure no one is following me. Eyes dart. Check. I pop into 7-Eleven. I wander the aisles to waste time before buying my 25 cent Now And Later candy. No one is waiting for me outside. Check. I dash across one more street to reach our front door. My parents have left the townhouse unlocked. I let myself in, bolt the door and begin my ritual of securing every room, every closet, every shower. Check. Check. Check. I become obsessed with locks and gears, locking and unlocking. Sometimes I hide in our under-stairs storage for hours at a time. Night terrors begin.
We delegate our work to the Wellness Center or Disability Services, which struggle for resources and staffing to meet the growing and more sophisticated mental health service needs of our students. When students confide in us, we may feel powerless and frustrated that campus resources for students are inadequate, and many faculty and staff are genuinely unsure how to intervene or which procedures to follow during acute student crises. Too much of the time, we pray for the best and hope that the next person the student seeks out will have more time or better resources to share. But that is not good enough. It’s no wonder that so few co-eds seek treatment.
Today. A diagnosis, treatment plan, acceptance of my illness, and acknowledgement that my Creator crafted me perfectly and purposefully to be exactly who I have become, has inspired a permanent shift in my perspective. I now use this new knowledge and purpose to decode the inscrutable enigma that is my brain’s chemistry and disability, so that I live a full, albeit imperfect life and help others do the same hard work of staying alive.
I want any readers who may be battling anything from seasonal depression to anxiety to ADHD to autism to OCD to schizophrenia, to know that you are not alone. As an alumna at events, professor in the classroom and advisor to student groups: I see you. I’ve been you. I will not give up on you. Your illness is not your fault.
And I am not alone in acknowledging your pain. I promise you that there are others in every department and discipline who see you, too, and we pledge to do better and to make this a campus where no illness or disability marginalizes you and increases your suffering.
Next year, some of my students and I are launching a student-driven club-ministry to increase mental health awareness at PLNU. Look for announcements and please check out my discussion with Jenna Miller about the club’s goals. We could use your help, whether you’re diagnosed with a disorder, affected by a loved one’s illness, a compassionate listener, or like me, still want Loma to be the blessed place where students feel safe, supported and never alone.
Danielle Cervantes is an adjunct journalism professor and alumnus of PLNU.