Growing up, I was always motivated by grades. I liked having that definitive mark to indicate whether I did well or not. Clearly, the beginnings of my perfectionistic tendencies go way back. Even in middle school, I remember carrying around a lot of anxiety about tests and grades. When I got to college, I was excited to be focusing more time on my interests – biology and anthropology – but the pressures of academia and my budding mental health issues wore me down.
Still, I was determined to do well. I had learned that I could earn good grades if I just put in enough work, even in subjects that didn’t come naturally to me. School was what I knew, and I felt tantalizingly close to the finish line. So, when I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder in the middle of my college career, I didn’t slow my progress down. Like many students, I simply forced myself to put my mental and physical health behind academic success.
At its worst, I went back and forth from my bed, desk, and class, taking naps when necessary but skipping meals and forgoing social interaction to conserve emotional energy. I thought about suicide a lot. I had several plans in mind, and I kept the worst of it from my therapist, fearing that she would force me to go to the hospital. The worst part of that potential event, in my mind, was missing class and falling behind. When I look at photos of myself from this time, I remember how forced it often felt to smile. Even on graduation day, I didn’t look happy; I just looked exhausted.
I hoped that if I could just make it to graduation and go home, I could rest and recover, and my mental health would improve. Instead, the sudden lack of structure combined with my admittedly fragile emotional state made things much worse. I tried – for months, I went diligently to therapy and attempted to pull myself out of my depression, but ultimately slipped back into suicidality. I was hospitalized for over a week, then released on condition that I do a partial hospitalization program for two more weeks.
I don’t know that all of that was caused by the stress of college. I am in my early twenties, when many mental illnesses make their presence known, so it’s possible that my symptoms would have been just as severe had I not gone to college at all. But I suspect that my perfectionism surrounding academics and the pressure I put on myself to succeed made an already risky situation worse.
When I can find compassion for myself these days, it makes me sad that I treated myself so poorly. Yes, I got a good GPA, but at what cost? To imagine anyone else doing what I did – valuing their academic success over their own life – is unbelievably sad. There is no grade that matters more than your wellbeing. I’m not exactly sure how my perspective was so narrow for so long. I knew that I could have taken a semester off – my mom suggested it, once – but I was vehemently opposed. I didn’t want to fall behind my peers. The thought of returning to campus without my friends made me anxious, and it left a vaguely shameful feeling in my chest. To take a semester off felt like a failure to me. That was my perfectionism speaking. There is absolutely nothing wrong or bad about taking a semester off. Or two. Or however many you need.
If I could go back, I would do things differently. I did love my majors – I would keep those. In fact, finding subjects that sparked my curiosity was a positive force on my mental health. Knowing that I had something to use in a career gave me a sliver of hope that was enough to let me imagine a future in which I wasn’t depressed. But two majors in four years is hard. I took a lot of credits each semester, and there was no way to avoid pairing difficult classes together. If I could go back, I would do it all more slowly. I’d take fewer credits per semester and accept that it would take me longer than four years. I’d also apply for accommodations. Beyond the assistance of longer exam times, it would have been nice to have my professors in the loop about my depression.
A lot of my perfectionism surrounding academics existed long before college, but there is something to be said for the culture that permeates my alma mater. There’s a sort of competitiveness among perfectionistic students for who can push themselves the hardest. If you say you’re stressed, people ask you how many credits you’re taking, as if your stress doesn’t count unless your course load is full. It’s not stated outright, but the general atmosphere is one of suffering-related humblebragging. If you’re stressed, it means you’re pushing yourself. If you’re not stressed, you might be slacking. Again – I love my university, and I’m proud to have gotten my degree there. People are motivated to achieve at Michigan, which is wonderful. That said, the limitless pressure to succeed can be dangerous.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college-age people in the US, and its rate is increasing. Around 1,000 college students die by suicide each year. When young people are off at college, often away from home for the first time, they’re vulnerable to the prevailing ideas. Submerged in a competitive culture, it’s easy for students to believe that their future will be ruined by a bad grade. And I get it – students have plans beyond college that require top-notch GPAs. For a while, I thought that veterinary school would be my next step. Instead, my plans seemed to come to a screeching halt after college. Depression has altered my life enormously. If I could talk to sophomore me, I’d say, “I haven’t gone to grad school, but my life is not ruined.” Through the waves of depression, I catch glimpses of what really matters, and none of it is a letter grade or a GPA. I think I have a healthier perspective on life and academics now.
I sincerely believe that most of my depression is biochemical. That said, I’m pretty sure my college experience sped up the decline in my mental health significantly. Again – I don’t regret going to college, but I do think that if I had taken time to consider my innate traits, really thought about the stresses of being a highly introverted person at a university with more than 40,000 students, things might be different for me today. I did my best at the time, but I wish that I had honored those parts of myself; the quiet parts, the parts that need calm and routine, which were frazzled and burnt out after four years of high pressure. My sensory differences made the pace of life I’d chosen at university unsustainable, and by the time I graduated, I had an almost constant low level of vertigo, loud noises made me cry, and lots of movement in my visual field (like in a busy dining hall or a crowded hallway) made me disoriented.
I would encourage anyone who is pursuing a degree now or considering doing so to remember that it’s your education and your life. Everyone goes at their own pace, and what anyone else thinks about your pace doesn’t matter. Furthermore, what you think other people are thinking is likely more harsh than the reality. Taking care of yourself and your mental health is not always easy, and going against the grain takes courage. Think about the resources and environments that would support you and seek them out. Make friends who understand you, and above all, put your health first.
(There were parts of college that I really loved. The friends I made and the things I learned were priceless. Football games, waffles, fancy events at my dorm, exploring campus – there are tons of great things about college! I didn’t intend for this post to turn out so dark. It’s all about moderation.)
Watching rotund squirrels eat nonspecific trash was always fun, too.