Mental Health is More Important Than Academic Success

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.

College and SPD: Dealing with Overwhelm

In my last “College and SPD” post, I talked about what I wish I had known about living with Sensory Processing Disorder while in college. This time, I’m going to share what I learned about self-regulation throughout my four years at a large university.

First, a Story

Let me set the scene: I was a sophomore, sitting in the largest lecture hall in the Chemistry Building at my university. The class was Organic Chemistry, and the year was 2015. It was the height of popularity for Bruno Mars’s song, “Uptown Funk”, and nobody was safe from its groovy, brass beat. My 200-some classmates and I were sitting there, trying to draw the chair conformation of alpha glucose with the same finesse as Professor N., when from the back of the hall came the sharp staccato of percussion instruments. If I could describe the look of pure bewilderment on Prof. N.’s face as a group known for interrupting lectures launched into a truly impressive rendition of “Uptown Funk”, I would. But it escapes description. As for the song: it was loud, it was exhilarating, and it left the class reeling for the remaining 30 minutes. Prof. N. was commendably patient and picked up her lecture where she left off, but my peers were distracted and buzzing with excitement.

The spike of adrenaline that I get from the sound of a dropped saucepan or a vacuum being turned on is just like the feeling of having your train of thought derailed by six thespians with trumpets, a bass, and some killer vocal cords. That day in Organic Chemistry was one of the few times I haven’t felt alone in my sensitivity. It was so jarring that you couldn’t help but react, and I wasn’t the only one!

There’s Always Something

Musical interruptions are not commonplace, at least not at my alma mater. There are, however, plenty of stimuli to put you on edge.

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Why do you have to scream? Also, how is this legal?

From the hordes of students clogging the walkways to the documentary clips played at full volume during your history class, to the inebriated bachelorette party on that weird bicycle/drinking bus that passes under your window at midnight.

I quickly found that I needed more time to recharge than I did before college. I also found that it was more difficult to find time to do so. I was swamped with assignments, study groups, and exam prep, and feeling the pressure of those expectations that I should live it up.

I Did Not “Live it Up”

My sophomore-year roommate and I went to one (1) party and spent the entire time shouting over the music to help a drunk student whose friends had lost track of her. For a while, I thought there must be something that I was missing out on. Why would so many people enthusiastically subject themselves to that? The answer is that my threshold for intense stimuli is probably much, much lower than that of someone who loves to party. Parties are loud, crowded, and messy; all things that raise my nervous system’s arousal past where it’s comfortable. While a little bit is enough to overwhelm me, it’s perfect for someone who craves that kind of input. Eventually, I accepted that the party scene just isn’t my thing, and I was much happier for it.

Find What’s Soothing

While you can simply choose not to go to parties, there are some aspects of college life that are unavoidably draining. For the general stress of being a college student, I found that establishing a routine was immensely helpful. Breakfast is my favorite meal and probably my favorite time of the day. I’d wake up at the same time, head down to the dining hall with my own mug, get some coffee and food, and start my day off right (read: predictably).

Having my own space set up the way I liked it was also helpful. Many people don’t have the option of living alone in college, but even when I had roommates, I tried to make my desk and bed into little sanctuaries where I could shelter and recharge. My weighted blanket is wonderful, and I learned to never underestimate the power of changing into pajamas.

When my insomnia was at its worst, it took me two hours to fall asleep at night. I just couldn’t settle down; I’d consciously relax my body, and then ten minutes later, realize it was tense again. All the while, my mind was running through deadlines and anxieties. Taking some time in between schoolwork and bed to do something soothing helped my insomnia. I brought my favorite poetry and fiction books from home so that I could read something enjoyable but not too exciting. I also did mental word games to keep my mind occupied until I could fall asleep.

I would have done some things differently if I’d known more about SPD, but I still found ways to cope. Looking back, I suppose that means that I shouldn’t discount my intuition. Listening to it and not judging it is the hard part.

College and SPD: 3 Things I Wish I Knew

I’ve known that I’m sensitive my entire life. I don’t like crowds, loud noises, getting splashed in the pool, or rollercoasters, and although I technically knew that I had Sensory Processing Disorder, that fact clung to the periphery of my awareness until I was nearing my college graduation. For the majority of my time at university, I questioned my worth, my intelligence, and my capabilities. Had I gone into college prepared with knowledge about my disorder and the intention to remember my sensory differences, I think my experience would have been much more positive.

But, here we are, and shoulda, coulda, wouldas won’t change the past. But they might change your future, so I thought I’d expand upon what I wish I knew about college and SPD.

1. I Got In For a Reason

I can’t tell you how much time I wasted worrying about my perceived inadequacy and comparing myself to my peers. So. Much. Time. And where did it get me? Countless sleepless nights and a heck of a lot of cortisol. When the other freshmen complained about the workload and said that they “breezed through high school”, what I thought was geez, I had to work really hard in high school. That must mean I’m not smart enough to be here. What I should have thought was: I worked really hard in high school and developed valuable time-management skills and study techniques. 

In hindsight, I probably felt I needed to put a lot of effort into my high school classes because planning and abstract thought are not my strong suits (read: math is hard for me). I often felt behind my peers because I learn best when I have quiet time to digest new information on my own; doing homework was usually when concepts started to make sense, but I was often utterly lost in class.

So, the bottom line is: I wish I knew that my learning style has more to do with sensory processing and less to do with my intelligence.

2. Everyone’s College Experience is Different

I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise type. This doesn’t tend to mesh well with the party lifestyle many people associate with college. I also really like oatmeal raisin cookies and think they’re vastly underappreciated. (Read: I’m actually an old person in a young person’s body.) My point is, I spent a lot of time feeling like I was missing out on all the things I knew I wouldn’t like, just because it seemed like I should.

A sub-category of this section is that finding a space that fits your needs in terms of community, interests, and activities is definitely possible and makes a huge difference in creating a sense of belonging. I went to an enormous university, and I was worried that it would be hard to make friends. So, I lived in a small, all-female dorm for three of my four years there. That turned out to be the best part of my college experience. I made life-long friendships and I immediately felt welcomed and accepted.

3. Focus on Yourself

In some ways, I did do this; I went to office hours, I prioritized classwork, I took the maximum number of credits a few times in order to fit in two majors. In other words, I focused on my academic goals, pretty much to the exclusion of all else. I didn’t start seeing a therapist until my senior year, and I failed to advocate for myself when it came to things like roommate disagreements and class accommodations.

When you’re in college, it’s important to remember that it’s your education. It’s a privilege many people don’t have, so get the most out of it while you can. That being said, your education won’t be much good to you or anyone else if you’re unable to use it after graduating. Taking care of yourself should be your first priority.

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Gotta love Nichol’s Arboretum and its weirdly habituated deer.

There are some aspects of college life that are unavoidable. For example- I don’t like crowds, and going to a big school meant that I was bound to encounter crowded walkways several times a day. When I had roommates, I realized that there weren’t many places on campus where I could be truly alone. Being surrounded by people at all times was exhausting, so I went on long walks to the arboretum near campus. I even started timing it so that I wouldn’t be leaving or returning when classes let out and the sidewalks were jammed with students.

 

There are a ton of other things related to Sensory Processing Disorder that I wish I knew or that I discovered a little late in my college career. Before I’m out of college for too long and forget them, I figured I’d share a few of them here. If coursework and time management, navigating campus, creating your ideal dorm room, or anything else SPD and college life-related is something you’d like to read more about, let me know.