My freshman year of college looked nothing like I expected it would. Despite binge-watching every college-themed movie I could find on Netflix the week before I moved into my dorm, nothing prepared me for the culture shock I felt being on my own for the first time.
While what they say is true — college really can be one of the best times of your life — for me and a lot of people, it was also one of the loneliest. Between navigating your newfound independence and managing a full course load of classes, the stress of college adds up. And sometimes that stress leads right into struggles with depression. But you don't have to go through that alone. Here are just a few things I wish I had known about depression before heading to college.
1. Don't trust everything you see on social media.
Social media can be a dangerous place when you're depressed. Scrolling through picture after picture of smiling faces can make it seem like everyone has their shit together, but that's definitely not the case. You can't take social media at face value, and if I'm being completely honest, my Instagram during the months where I felt the most depressed in college is riddled with pictures of me smiling.
It's easy to start comparing yourself to others, especially when you think everyone is having a good time except for you, but just remember not everything is always as it seems online. It's not that hard to create a false reality on social media to hide depression and anxiety, so try not to assume everyone is doing fine.
2. Problems are much easier to deal with when you’re not hungover.
Having access to alcohol in college makes it too easy to drown your feelings in the bottom of a bottle of vodka. But it turns out that when the sun comes up, and the vodka cranberry that you don't remember spilling all over your jacket dries, your problems are still going to be there waiting for you.
Alcohol abuse is prevalent in college and drinking can worsen the symptoms of depression. Trust me, numbing your feelings with alcohol is only going to leave you with a hangover and more problems to deal with when you wake up.
3. Not all community is healthy community.
I was so terrified of feeling alone during my freshman year that I took to the first friend group I could find, and while I was surrounded by people, I wasn't emotionally supported by them. At times I actually felt lonelier surrounded by 20 so-called friends than I ever felt hanging out alone in my room.
No one likes to feel lonely, however, it's important that you're surrounding yourself with people who encourage you and build you up. Feeling like you're all alone is terrible, but so is hanging out with people who don't support you, and falling into the wrong crowd when you're depressed can make it easier for you to make poor decisions for your health.
4. If you try to be everything to everyone, you'll end up losing yourself.
One of the best parts about college is that it gives you a fresh start. You have a chance to try new things and even reinvent yourself, but you have to be careful and make sure the person you're becoming is someone you actually want to be.
I never thought I was someone who would give into peer pressure, but I quickly learned that I was willing to do almost anything to stay a part of my friend group. Slowly but surely I began to lose myself as I tried to keep up the "fuck it" attitude my friends exuded. Adopting some of the traits and interests of the people around you is normal, but you shouldn't compromise your own morals just to fit in.
5. Asking for help doesn’t make you a failure.
The biggest regret I have from college is not asking for help earlier. No matter what was going on or how bad I felt, I kept everyone away with a simple, "I'm fine." It turns out that the biggest obstacle in the way of my recovery, was simply my pride. Once I finally accepted that I couldn't keep fighting my battle alone and reached out for help, it felt like I could finally breathe for the first time in months.
Asking for help can be scary, because it means you're admitting to yourself that things are not okay, but that doesn't mean you're a failure. It means that while life can be really fucking hard, you're brave enough to reach out for help. You shouldn't discount your bravery.
6. But you are allowed to fail.
When you're depressed, any sort of failure can feel like a huge setback, but the truth is sometimes you have to fail hard in order to grow. As long as you're not hurting yourself or those around you, mistakes can really be a blessing in disguise. If you let the fear of failure rule your college years, you're going to miss out on so much goodness life has in store for you.
After spending my first two years of college terrified of failing, I signed a contract stating I would allow myself to fail. I still keep it in my room to this day as a reminder that some of the best things in life form out of failure.
7. Your feelings are valid, no matter what anyone says.
No matter how many times you may hear, "Are you sure you're depressed?" and "Don't exaggerate, you're just having a bad day" it is so important to remember that you have every right to feel the way you feel.
This also means that you can look the way you feel. You don't have to act like you're okay when you're the furthest thing from it. Be honest with yourself. Don't discount your depression by laughing off your problems with friends or smiling when you talk about being sad.
8. If you seek out help through your school, there might be a wait.
When I finally admitted that I needed help, I wanted to talk to someone as soon as possible. However when I reached out to my college counseling center, it took two weeks to set up a primary consultation and another month after that to have my first meeting. According to a survey by the National Alliance on Mental Health, students who dropped out of school due to mental health issues claim that more access to mental health services would have helped them stay in college.
So while I strongly urge people enough to reach out, keep in mind that if you go through your school, it could take a while. If you don't think you can wait that long for help, there are so many great resources online for you to utilize. Thanks to organizations like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line, immediate help is merely a phone call or text away.
9. Taking medicine doesn't make you weak.
Before my depression hit in college, the only times I heard my friends mention taking Xanax was in a recreational sense. So when my therapist recommended starting me on a small dose to deal with my anxiety and depression, I felt weak. I thought it meant I wasn't strong enough to handle life on my own, but that's simply not the case.
In a survey conducted by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health in 2013, 32 percent of college students who sought help for mental health issues took medication as a part of treatment. So please do not be ashamed of taking medication.
10. Depression won't go away overnight.
Depression isn't suddenly cured after one meeting with a therapist. You wouldn't expect a sprained ankle to heal after one trip to urgent care, would you? Then why expect those standards with mental health? Getting better takes time, so give yourself grace.
In a survey conducted by Psychology Today in 2014, one in three college students reported experiencing prolonged periods of depression. So while you may be impatient to get better, remember that you're not alone and it's okay to celebrate the small victories, even if it's just getting out of bed on the hard days.
11. Prioritize your mental health.
College can definitely be hard and at times overwhelming, so don't feel bad if you need to take a break. Somedays can feel like the world is weighing down on your chest, and if that happens it's okay to take a mental health day.
Missing a class isn't the end of the world, and your mental health is more important than one philosophy lecture. Be honest with your professors and let them know things aren't okay. They should understand, and some might even applaud you for speaking up.
12. Treat yourself when you can.
Anytime I felt like my life was crumbling around me, I took myself to the movies. Sitting alone in a dark theater and escaping into whatever movie was in front of me felt like pressing a reset button on my emotions. It gave me a break. Sometimes that's all you can ask for.
So find something that helps you reset. Maybe it's taking a long walk around campus, or it can even be as simple as getting that second slice of chocolate cake in the dining hall. We often forget to be kind to ourselves, but it's so important that you remember to give yourself a break.
13. Remember you're not alone.
According to the American College Health Association nearly one third of college students meet the criteria for an anxiety or depressive illness. Do not forget that there are other people around you feeling the same way you do. If you're open and honest with yourself and with others you might even be able to form a support group within your dorm or college as a whole. Please, please remember that you don't have to go through life alone.
If you or someone you know is going through a rough time, feeling depressed, or thinking about self-harm, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit its website here.
Alana Mohamed contributed research to this post.