On college and mental health

Earlier this year, a subject was raised in one of my classes for our small group of students to discuss.

Mental health in the workplace.

Our professor talked to us about trying to manage your own mental well-being while working in journalism. During the discussion, one of the students in the class boldly volunteered that they had gone to see a therapist before. That student was followed by another student in the class who said the exact same thing.

OK. My turn.

I blurted out to the class that yes, I'd started seeing one as well.

(But shhh, don't tell anyone, because it's awkward to talk about societal issues like mental health in 2013 out loud, OK? OK.)

Our professor looked at us, and told us that never would've happened way back when in his workplace.

I could see what he meant. Three people admitting they'd seen someone to talk to about their mental health? No way. There's a stigma to doing and admitting something like that, so hush, hush, kiddies. Just don't talk about it, OK?

But there wasn't in our class. And I could tell, our professor was proud.

I didn't admit that I'd started seeing someone at our school's counseling center because I wanted to volunteer random information about my personal life to my peers. I didn't, really. Even in a day and age when there is more of a public discussion over mental health than there was when our professor was younger, talking about issues like this still comes attached with a stigma. You think people are looking at you funny, and know that questions are darting back and forth through their head. Well why is she seeing a therapist? What's wrong with her? What's she going through? Do I know about it? Is she crazy? What sort of issues does she have to sort out? How is she different? Is she going to wig out on us?

I echoed the two of my classmates before me in saying I'd seen someone to talk about "life" because I wanted the other students in the class to know that doing that was OK, and that even better, it was more common than they thought.

In all honesty, I'd never paid full-on attention to my mental health like I should. After high school, I'd jumped into journalism school full-speed ahead, and piled on classes and jobs and reporting gigs, which meant I was going to ignore a variety of other things, like sleep, some "free" time and thinking about anything unrelated to journalism school, essentially. This didn't make me unhappy by any means, since I'm someone who is naturally wired to be all over the place, but combined with other events in my life, it took its toll.

We don't think about our mental health. We don't stop to think about how our mind processes things, why we get anxious or stressed, how we cope with emotions or how others' actions affect us. We don't stop to analyze how we were raised and how we grew up, and how that shaped who we are as people and our outlooks on life. We often times don't slow down, or take breathers or breaks. We try to cope the best we can in our own minds, and in college, that's compounded with little sleep, a lot of caffeine, a decent amount of booze and a much too lengthy to-do list that lasts for months on end.

You might be working one too many jobs to maintain your sanity. Or you might've gotten your heart broken. Or are sizing yourself up to the successes of your peers. Or questioning whether your work is adequate enough for your major and whether you can make it in the big leagues of a select profession. Or being driven insane by your family during your awkward I'm-a-big-kid-but-you're-still-parenting-me years. Or spending way too much time thinking about all of the above things because this is your fourth cup of coffee this morning and because you haven't a chance to hit the gym this week to run off all of that steam from stress.

If you're on your way to college, in college, or have recently graduated from college, you've heard the ancient idea that college is the best four years of your life. I don't have enough world wisdom yet to decide and dictate whether it is or isn't, but regardless of your stance on the experience, it can't be argued that it is a growing process, and a painful one at that. You're earning a degree, getting your ducks in a row and trying to figure out the beginning stages of your adult life.

You're coming into your own. And there's no training wheels for that, so you're going to get a little scraped up. And you know what? So is your mental health.

And there's people who want to listen to all of that.

My experience talking to someone aside from my friends about what goes into "coming into my own" taught me and continues to teach me more about myself than I ever would've learned on my own. There's something to be said for trying to articulate yourself and your life to a complete stranger—he or she has a completely unbiased perspective on you as a person. They can figure out how you think, where your personality comes from, what's shaped you and can just listen. They can listen about how those college growing pains are as awkward as middle school dances and acne.

In fact, when I'd told some of my other friends about talking to someone, a few of them told me they had gone to counseling in the past as well. A little while after our class's discussion on mental health, one of my good friends in that same class came up to me. She told me she'd joined the club and was going to see someone to talk about things, too. I'd like to think that our class's honesty on the subject helped tip her in the direction that was right for her.

Even for someone like me who wears her heart on her sleeve quite often, talking about these issues isn't easy. It's not something you feel confident to share at a dinner party, and you don't feel so inclined to run around screaming through the street, "I have a therapist!" Even to this day, going to see a therapist freaks me out internally to some extent. Sitting and waiting to go into an appointment is eerie and quiet at times, and gives off the vibe of a doctor's office somewhat. Part of you feels "different" than everybody else. But I joke about it and I talk about it.

You don't have to have experienced a giant, traumatic life event to justify going to see someone. You don't have to have a specific thing to talk about. You don't have to have a sob story. You don't have to be able to pinpoint your flaws or your positive traits about yourself. You just have to want to learn more about yourself. You're not admitting weakness—you're giving into finding your strength. And there's something to be said for that.

You're coming into your own, and that's not an easy task. And even in 2013, neither is talking about mental health. So let's talk about it.

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    Allison Prang

    Allison is a student at the Missouri School of Journalism, specializing in watchdog journalism and political science. She is a contributor for The Mash by The Chicago Tribune, the City, a senior staff writer for The Maneater, MU's student newspaper and works part-time at Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. In her free time, she loves to run, read, nurse her caffeine addiction and obsess over Bob Woodward's latest best-sellers.

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