by Laura, graduate student and guest writer
Times of transition can be especially taxing on our mental health. About six weeks ago I made the nineteen-hour drive from Texas to Michigan to start my graduate program. Moving somewhere new for graduate school with no established social support network can be overwhelming.
You're quickly trying to make friends, network with faculty, manage your coursework, while also trying to give yourself time to acclimate to an unfamiliar environment. If I hadn't worked with a counselor last fall, I'd feel very ill-prepared to combat the strain this experience can place on one's mental or emotional well-being.
I have always recognized that I sometimes struggle with keeping my anxieties about life or school or personal relationships in check, though it wasn't until my senior year when I started to notice a significant shift in my ability to manage my emotions and anxious thoughts. However, I thought of mental health in terms of a checklist.
Every morning I was getting out of bed like normal, I was doing okay in my classes, I had not experienced any spontaneous panic attacks; therefore, my mental health was fine.
Every morning I was getting out of bed like normal, I was doing okay in my classes, I had not experienced any spontaneous panic attacks; therefore, my mental health was fine (excluding the recurring pain in my chest, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping, and extreme emotions I pretended were normal). During this time, I acknowledged to a close friend that I thought I might need to see a counselor, but I dreaded verbalizing to a stranger the extent of my irrational emotions and thoughts and how weak they made me feel.
Months passed and I graduated and moved back home to Houston. The loss of my established social support network in Oklahoma illuminated how far I had let my anxiety go without addressing it. My emotions felt like they were gaining more and more control over me and my anxiety was worsening, causing me to constantly alternate between feeling mentally and physically restless and feeling completely exhausted and unmotivated. I reached a point when I recognized that if I didn't address my concerns over my mental health soon, I was going to regret it.
Almost a full year had passed from the time I'd told my close friend about wanting to see a counselor before I finally made the appointment. I thoroughly researched psychologists in the area to ensure it was a good match for me, and for about two months I worked with my counselor to develop a sort of cognitive-behavioral tool kit for combatting my irrational anxieties. In addition, we practiced mindfulness exercises to prevent emotions from overwhelming my thoughts. There was no quick-fix or overnight change, but it equipped me with the tools, support, and accountability I needed. Unlearning unhealthy thinking has taken me time and a lot of practice, but I can tell how far I've come by my ability to navigate such a dramatic lifestyle change as I have these last six weeks.
I found, though, that by talking about my own experience I simultaneously invite others to do the same, and for many of my friends, I believe it would've been hard to have such vulnerable and candid conversations without that invitation.
Often one of the hardest parts of addressing your own mental health challenges is acknowledging them to others. I found, though, that by talking about my own experience I simultaneously invite others to do the same, and for many of my friends, I believe it would've been hard to have such vulnerable and candid conversations without that invitation. Coming into graduate school, many students are open about their experiences with their own mental health, while others are more private, but at a time when many of us are feeling a little lost and unsure of what the next few years will bring, there's a recognition of the importance of leaning on each other.
My own experiences provided me with deeper empathy and understanding of the challenges others face while also motivating me to continually strive to support those around me. Regardless of whether you have known someone for a few years or a few weeks, regardless of whether or not you come from the same background as those around you, it is imperative that we recognize and share in each other's burdens. Sometimes that means having the strength and humility to first share your own.