By Sophia Temkin '17
Content warning: implication of depression; mention of attempted suicide, sexual assault, and anxiety
The first time I went to therapy, I was in second grade. The last time I went to therapy was about a week ago. I think I’ve spent more years in weekly therapy than not.
I can mark time by how well I was coping with my mental health. Fourth grade will always be “The Year I Attempted Suicide.” Ninth grade is remembered as the first time I went a whole year without being in therapy. And this year, my senior year of college, I’m sure I will remember as the year I went back to therapy to deal with grief at my grandfather’s passing and anxiety over my father’s cancer diagnosis.
I don’t talk a lot about my therapy experiences. I don’t even talk about my diagnoses. I might allude to them in conversations with friends, but that only happens with my closest friends. As much as I believe in mental health advocacy, I have struggled to share what therapy has done for me. But I’m concerned by how negative the narrative around therapy is on this campus, so I decided I should share.
Here is what therapy has done for me: I believe therapy is the reason why I am empathetic, a good listener, and extremely self-reflective. Therapy has literally saved my life. The skills I’ve learned are the reason why I am a functioning adult. My therapist is the reason why I believed I could handle going to Wellesley, many miles away from my family. Therapy allowed me to know myself. Therapy gave me the tools to develop healthy relationships after experiencing sexual assault; it helped me find a purpose for living when everything else made me feel completely worthless.
I’ve worked hard on my mental health—yes, it is work. It’s hard to go talk to a stranger about your deepest fears and be completely vulnerable and then come back in a week to do it all over again. It’s hard and scary, terrifying even. It’s scary to say out loud to someone,“I worry that I won’t accomplish anything in my life.” It’s hard to understand what someone else could do to help you when you are so thoroughly convinced you are beyond assistance. That’s the terrifying thing about mental illnesses: at the moment you so badly need someone else to help you, you convince yourself no one possibly could.
Sometimes a therapist might not click with you. Sometimes they might even be absolutely awful and disregard your feelings or your identity. Medication is not the right treatment for everyone; it can be a long time before you feel better and it is so easy to become discouraged. But it is still one of the best ways to cope with a mental illness. When we keep sharing stories about how we think Stone Center would hospitalize us if we sought help or counselors there won’t say anything more substantial than “go talk a walk around the lake,” what effect are we having on our community?
Many people talk about how awful the Stone Center is, but far fewer people talk about the times it has been helpful. The Stone Center counselor I saw my first year is the reason I didn’t transfer when I felt overwhelmed with homesickness. The Stone Center can be effective. When we share only critical thoughts, we dissuade people from going to Stone, and we might simultaneously send the harmful message that therapy overall is useless. I worry about the incoming first-year who might be feeling homesick, or just anxious about college, yet doesn’t reach out for help because of the overwhelmingly negative things people have said. I worry that in a moment of crisis someone won’t reach out to the people best trained to help them. I worry about the people who go through Wellesley feeling alone but never know that feeling alone is a valid reason to talk to a counselor. I worry we aren’t giving enough space—or enough validation— to the people for whom counselling has really worked.
In the spirit of being a senior and thinking about what I wish people had said, here is a list of things I wish more people would say about mental health.
1. Therapy doesn’t fix everything in one sitting. You have to go again and again. Often you will feel worse after a session; that makes sense. You’ve just opened up the deepest parts of your soul, so it’s going to feel raw. Sometimes therapy alone isn’t enough.
2. People who judge you for seeking help aren’t people you should listen to when it comes to mental health. Yes, I know that might include parents, siblings, or even significant others. Stigma runs deep in society, and there is a lot of shame associated with therapy and mental health in general. Don’t let that stigma prevent you from seeking out help.
3. Following up on Point 2: Put Yourself First. Maybe not every time, but at least some of the times. Cut out the people in your life who don’t bring you joy. Add more of the things and people who do. Life is too short to not prioritize your own happiness. Also, repeat this phrase as often as necessary, “I deserve to be happy.” You don’t need to feel happy every moment of every day but you deserve to feel happiness and contentment.
4. Mental health is complicated. You might feel great for a week and then feel awful. Just because you still feel happiness or excitement doesn’t mean you should ignore the times when you feel overwhelmed, out of control, or extremely lonely. Depression does not mean you never smile.
5. Mental illness is more common than you think, and more people than you might expect are seeking help for it. People with a mental illness don’t have a certain look. We aren’t all in a secret society that you have to qualify for to join. We are your RA, your e-board president, or a varsity athlete. Just because you are on medication or go see a therapist doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish whatever you want.
6. Please stop conflating depression with sadness and anxiety with stress. Depression and anxiety are clinical terms which refer to a specific diagnosis with specific symptoms. We all feel sadness and stress, we don’t all experience depression and anxiety. To use the terms interchangeably makes it seem like people with depression or anxiety should be able to cope on their own because people who are sad or stressed manage on their own.
7. If you don’t like a therapist, tell them what you don’t like. If they don’t change, go see someone else. Same thing for medication. Repeat as many times as needed until you find what helps you feel better.
8. Go to Active Minds events or talk with your MHE if you have questions. This last one is shameless self-promotion. I have been honored to be a MHE for the last four years and this year I served as the coordinator of the MHEs. The group of people in Active Minds care so much about mental health advocacy. They care about changing the culture of our campus to encourage more people to seek the help they need. Go and talk with them if you have questions.
College is one of the few places where you will have free therapy available to you almost whenever you want. Take advantage of this opportunity. Find out more about yourself, discover a self-care technique that really works for you, and prioritize your mental health. You are worth it.
From May 2017 Issue