Mental Musings: It doesn’t have to be this way


Hannah Agpoon

Graphic by Hannah Agpoon.

Millie Peck, Opinions Editor

I started drafting at least four different columns for the Mental Musings series, but in a state of deep irony I just felt too depressed to write anything. I don’t use the word depression lightly, and I don’t just mean simply sad or unmotivated; I mean numb, hopeless and turned off to the world. Even moving my body felt like effort, like I was moving through molasses. Feeling this way came as somewhat of a shock because, while I’ve struggled with my mental health, I haven’t been depressed for well over a year. I forgot what it felt like. And it’s not just that you can’t motivate yourself, it’s that everything shifts out of focus — the edges of life’s beauty dull and everything feels fuzzy and out of focus.

At a recent mental health talk I co-lead for the cross-country team, someone asked for suggestions for coping with seasonal affective disorder. Another person chimed in about how important it is to go outside even though it’s dark and cold. Sledding is fun, they said. “Put on snow boots.” I chuckled a little. If only it were that easy. When I am depressed, the things I normally love feel strenuous — I walk away from social interactions depleted, food tastes bland and writing, which normally invigorates me, feels overwhelming. Sometimes I stay at my house frozen all night because I just can’t get up. I don’t feel as good at my job, or as good of a friend, or as good of a student. In fact, nothing that I do feels good enough. I want to curl up in a ball and never get up. It’s not a matter of pushing through.

Nevertheless, I am fortunate because I know that this depression is temporary. I have been to therapy enough to know that I will find a way out of this state, but I haven’t always felt this way. I remember my mother telling me over and over again, “it won’t be this way forever,” and every time I told her “you don’t know that.” Ultimately she was right, but it would be naive to assume the same is true for everyone. Many people in college have felt depressed or anxious for most of their lives and will continue to feel that way perhaps for the rest of their lives. This week reminded me of how difficult it is to live this way and how hopeless it feels.

Last spring, I lost a friend to suicide. My emotions went beyond grief. An indescribable empathy poured through me. I had walked the same halls in the same town feeling the same things he did. I got the help I needed in time. He didn’t. In between fits of tears, I became angry. Everyone kept talking about how selfish it was, how senseless, and while I don’t think suicide is ever the answer, I don’t think those labels are fair. As someone who lived with suicidal ideation for the better part of a decade, I can’t describe the strength it takes to choose life each day when all signs suggest that things won’t ever get better. Each day you blindly choose to ignore the pain of your existence with the hope that someday it won’t feel this way.  I know that choosing to stay takes grit that many will never understand. If you are reading this right now, that means that you, too, chose to stay, so thank you. I know it isn’t easy.

Often, living becomes an extremely selfless act — we choose to stay because we can’t imagine putting our loved ones in that much pain. But just because staying is selfless doesn’t mean leaving is inherently selfish. It’s okay to be angry with someone for taking their life and to be angry with ourselves, but when my friend died, I wondered if blaming him for hurting people was the exact reason he chose to leave. 

We invalidated the immensity of the pain they feel. I wonder if some of the anger that we feel is misdirected toward the victim when maybe it should be toward ourselves. At least that’s what I tried to do. I wondered what I could have done differently, to aid him in getting the help that he needed. Someone dies from suicide every eleven minutes. Clearly, this issue is more than just individual. We are experiencing a mental health crisis. We all play a role in this epidemic, so maybe rather than asking why they did it, we ask instead what we could have done, and can we do that for someone else or for ourself so this doesn’t happen again.

For me, dealing with my mental illness took putting everything else in my life on hold. I first spent a month at a partial hospitalization program during my senior year of high school and dropped half my classes upon my return. Then, in my sophomore year of college, I took time off to go to residential treatment for my eating disorder. I resisted going each time, believing I wasn’t sick enough. Sure, I had issues, but there were other people who had it far worse. I had never actually tried to commit suicide, and I wasn’t even emaciated anymore, but there is no barometer to measure how sick someone is, and in many ways, I was on the brink of death. 

If you feel like what you are doing isn’t working, if you feel like life feels bad more than it feels good, then it’s time to do something different. Don’t wait until you are too sick, or until it’s too late. Taking time off can feel scary, I know, but we have to take the time to take care of ourselves.

Unfortunately, the biggest reason for not receiving mental health treatment is cost barriers. This is a devastating reality, but even if this is the case, I urge you to still try because you don’t know what options might be available until you look. Most people don’t seek help because they don’t know where to go or they don’t have enough time. But I encourage you to reach out to Student Health and Wellness (SHAW), talk to your doctor, check out the Virtual Care Group or send me an e-mail. This is worth figuring out, I promise. 

I fear that time is the single biggest reason Grinnellians don’t get help. It was for me. How could I possibly fit therapy into my schedule? And taking time off from school to go to treatment didn’t feel like an option. I didn’t want to put my life on hold. I didn’t want to miss out. I learned that by not taking time off to heal and get the tools that I needed, I missed a lot more. If you aren’t in therapy, go to SHAW. If you are, talk to your therapist about other options.

Your mental health must take priority. I promise you that you will not be able to cure cancer or solve world hunger, or do any of the other things Grinnellians do, if you are deeply depressed. Living with mental illness causes us to miss out on laughs and smiles and connection and joy on a daily basis. You deserve all of these things, so please, do what you need to take care of you. And if that means taking time off, then do it. Taking time off doesn’t always mean going to residential treatment (although for some it might and there is no shame in that), but it might mean dropping an activity or a class so that you have time to go to therapy or go to support groups. 

Often, we are so afraid of missing out, but that only results in us only half living the moments we do have. Missing small moments now will ensure that we have more rich, full, beautiful moments. Don’t settle for a life half-lived in the confines of your mental illness. Take the time you need now.