College was a pivotal point in my life regarding mental health advocacy and confronting my own struggles with mental illness. After joining a student organization on campus that aimed to raise awareness for mental health and open dialogue, I felt that I could genuinely sit with what I was feeling for the first time. Those four years were not always easy on my mental well-being: I struggled with anxiety, depression, body issues, and loss while balancing a social and educational life. While I had been an open advocate for mental health since my freshman year of college and grew up in a family where “mental health days” were valued, I still found myself keeping my struggles to myself.
I noticed that if one of my friends were having a bad day or struggling, I would be the one to listen, offer resources, and remind them it’s ok to not be ok. But when it came to myself, I was a harsher critic. I didn’t feel the need to lean on anyone because I didn’t want to burden them. I created this narrative in my head that while being President of a mental health organization, I should “have it all together.” Yet, I found myself avoiding going to the school’s counseling center, and when I did, I hoped no one I knew would see me walk in. I didn’t openly discuss my anxiety until my junior year of college and found myself hiding my prescribed medication in drawers so a roommate would not see it. Simply, I was not practicing what I was preaching. Only a few friends knew I struggled with anxiety, and even then, they did not know my history with depression or body image struggles. Sometimes, I felt guilty about keeping my mental health to myself.
It’s a complicated situation. As a person, I do not stigmatize anyone’s mental health struggles. I am well-informed on how mental health impacts all of us. I know statistics and resources, and I genuinely believe that taking care of your mental well-being is crucial and essential. I understand and love so many people that live with mental illnesses, and they are not any less because of them. Yet, here I was, making my mental illness all I was. Here I was, equating strength with suffering in silence.
I felt debilitated by my struggles at times. I thought it defined who I was, and I was ashamed. I didn’t want to be the girl who struggles with mental health. Because it is not always pretty. There are some heavy days, and I am still learning to navigate them. I am still learning to open up about my issues to the people in my life, and it is difficult. As a society, we often wonder, “why didn’t they tell us how they felt?” when someone loses their life to mental health or their struggles become apparent.
But I understand why people don’t want to talk about it. Some don’t know who they can turn to or who will understand. This was my own experience with grief. As a twenty-one-year-old who lost their brother, what friend can I talk to that will relate? I often felt like an outsider, especially returning to a college campus where everything was so alive, where people were celebrating, partying, loving, and living the “best four years” of their lives. So, I swallowed my grief. But I soon discovered that suffering was a lot harder to hide than my other mental health struggles. Because when you lose someone, it becomes a part of your identity. That heartache has changed me forever, and I am still learning how to acknowledge this new version of myself.
Other people who struggle with mental health might not know how to put it in words or even want to discuss it because they live it 24/7. Why give more power to something that already has so much power over you? Sometimes talking about your pain makes you relive it. Other times, it allows you to release it.
Yet, I am slowly learning to talk to friends, family, and loved ones about my mental wellness. I am learning to be gentle with myself and treat myself how I would love anyone who told me, “I am not doing ok.” I am not sure why it feels difficult to give myself that same grace I give to others, but it is. However, when I have written blogs about my struggles or opened up to people about my anxiety, I have always received love, kindness, and warmth. And it truly is those responses, those that say, “I might not get it, but I am here,” that is allowing me to heal in a way I have needed to for so long.
I am a mental health advocate, and I admire this part of my identity. I am proud of how I have grown to truly understand the mental health issues in our world. And I still have more work to do as an ally. But, I don’t want to just be an advocate for other people; I want to also be one for myself. Because I deserve the same love, I give out. I deserve the reminder: “it is ok not to be ok,” because I won’t always be ok and that is a reality I am learning to embrace. Even so, I still am worthy of good things, and I am still myself. My mental health is a part of me, but it is not all of me.