The Hidden Struggle: College Edition #WorldSuicidePreventionDay September 10, 2018

September is Suicide Prevention Month and today, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day. Like most of us, I too have been personally and closely effected by suicide. I am thankful every day that even during the most difficult times of my own mental health struggles, I have not been drawn into that darkness. However, many are not so lucky and struggle every day to see and feel the light.

College-age students are extremely susceptible, while simultaneously being really good at hiding their pain. I was reminded of my own hidden struggle recently as I went through the process of acquiring my transcripts from the undergraduate and graduate schools I attended.  Once I received those papers, I had an unexpected, visceral reaction. It felt like I was transported back in time as I closely reviewed each semester.

My undergraduate years were rough. An intense and traumatic relationship that had started in high school followed me to college. Layered on top of that, my nuclear family was facing obstacles no one could have ever imagined.

I went from an honor roll student in high school to a “holdover pledge;” i.e. my grades were not high enough to be initiated into my sorority on time, so I had to pledge an additional semester in order to get my grades high enough to be inducted, achieving the absolute bare minimum.

In addition to my relational struggles, I showed up on campus completely ill-equipped to self manage and self monitor. While others could party all night and get up and go to class, I couldn’t figure out how to balance the two, and ultimately chose fun times far more often than class time.  At first, this unfamiliar freedom to make my own choices felt new and exciting, but it escalated into a pattern of unhealthy decision making.

So why was I, someone who showed solid aptitude in high school, so challenged in college by its demands of independence and self-motivation, while others were able to successfully manage?

Anne Marie Albono, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders says she is inundated with texts and phone calls from students who struggle with the transition to college life. “Elementary and high school is so much about right or wrong. You get the right answer or you don’t, there are lots of rules and lots of structure.” College life is, she says, “free-floating” which causes increased anxiety in students.

Lack of daily structure, ignoring any potential consequences for my choices (DENIAL!), relationship and family problems, as well as a lack of defined sense of self**,  combined to form massive amounts of anxiety and bouts of depression for me. I never told anyone or sought out help while in college, yet the hidden struggles were there, building semester after semester.

I suffered alone or found ways to numb the feelings of fear, anxiety and depression.  When feelings were numbed, life was not so overwhelming and scary. Was help available to me? I’m sure it was but shame and fear kept me from telling even my closest friends and the stigma of mental health problems kept me from pursuing campus resources.

I recently read the book, What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of An All American Teen by Kate Fagan – (summary link here: (http://womensrunning.competitor.com/2017/07/books/what-made-maddy-run-suicide_77052). The book is the true story of University of Pennsylvania cross country athlete, Maddy Holleran, who committed suicide by jumping from a parking garage at the beginning of her second semester of freshman year. Maddy was a smart, talented, beautiful young woman from a wonderful family and home town. Her back story reminds me a lot of my own town and my daughters’ friends: high performing kids and exemplary members of their school communities in academics, sports and volunteerism.

The flip side of this type of environment is that the often intense pressure and demands they (or others) put on themselves to be high achievers can be doubled-down on as they enter college, leading to significant mental health struggles. Sadly, that was Maddy Holleran’s story and she was unable to see any other way out of her personal pain.

One statistic I recently read is that the number of students seeking help at counseling centers on campuses rose by 30% between 2009 and 2016.  Hand in hand with the increase in counseling services has been the slow but consistent growth in the number of students reporting feelings of depression, anxiety and social anxiety.  “In the past, students may have suffered in silence, unaware of the help available to them or too afraid of the stigma to take advantage of it,” one researcher says.

Below are some additional findings from the reports:

  • College students report feeling as if their mental health struggles are an extremely lonely experience – they feel disconnected and like they are the only ones having the problems they are experiencing.
  • In a spring 2017 survey, 40% of college students said they had felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult for them to function; 61% of students said they had felt overwhelming anxiety. If the student was an athlete, the numbers were even higher.
  • Peer comparison, shift of control from parent to student (think of the life change from helicopter parenting to complete autonomy), and a combination of academic (keeping grades high enough to maintain a scholarship, for example, or thinking about applying to law or med school) and financial concerns are listed as major causes of anxiety in students.

Citing the upward trend in college students increasing mental health support needs, the government has infused money into colleges and universities to increase resources available. Here are some examples of a few progressive university innovations:

  • Virginia Tech opened satellite counseling clinics to reach students where they already spend their time, including above a campus Starbucks, in the athletic department and in graduate centers.
  • Ohio State in 2016/2017 launched a counseling mobile app that allows students to make an appointment, access breathing exercises, listen to a playlist designed to cheer them up & contact the clinic in emergency
  • Penn State allocated $700k in additional funding for counseling and psychological services in 2017 citing a dramatic increase in demand for care.

With this post, I hope to reach college-age students who may be wondering if they should reach out and ask for help – the answer is YES. Talk to someone. Know there are resources available to you at all times. You are not alone, even if it feels like it. Most of us have felt have you feel!

My hope is also that parents of college students will read this, listen to their intuition and pay attention to any red flags in their child’s behaviors, words or lack thereof (i.e. isolation, lack of communication, etc.).  Most importantly, make sure your child is aware of all the resources available to them on campus. Just find it and text it to them, even if they act like you are crazy. Tell them to share the information with their friends.

Reducing the shame and stigma of mental health struggles by increasing communication on the topic will help in normalizing the experience of mental illness. Had I known this when I was in college, I would have saved myself from many years of private struggle, from college years into adulthood. Increased awareness of behavioral red flags and pushing through what feel like awkward and difficult conversations can save lives.

Please leave a comment and/or share this to reach as many people as possible today.

RESOURCES:

TEXT:  The Crisis Text Line (crisistextline.org) is the only 24/7, nationwide crisis-intervention text-message hotline. The Crisis Text Line can be reached by texting HOME to 741-741

CALL:  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255

World Suicide Prevention Day:   https://iasp.info/wspd2018/

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**Definition of Sense of Self. … In psychology, the sense of self is defined as the way a person thinks about and views his or her traits, beliefs, and purpose within the world. It’s a truly dynamic and complicated concept because it covers both the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ self.

Approval Seeking or Authentic Living?

(I started the first draft of this post on 4/18/18…since then I think Kanye may have taken a dark turn on his twitter…I will, however, stop time on April 18th for the purpose of this post, so if you will, bear with me and/or ignore any of his other cray shizz.)

N’er (I learned from my youngest this is acceptable in iambic pentameter) did I think I would reference Yeezy in my personal blog. I do, however, enjoy insightful reflection from unexpected sources. Hence, my Kanye tweet is the basis of today’s writing.

KWauthenticity

I spent many years of my life, most years in fact, seeking approval instead of authenticity.  I believed I had to act, speak, think and look certain ways in order to be worthy of love and acceptance. This is exhaustion defined. No peace. No present moment awareness. No true connection to self or others.

Authentic. Authenticity. These are words that apply to original works of art, famous family recipes. What does it mean in terms of a regular Joe trying to live a best life?

Well, Kanye purports authenticity over approval. And frankly, so do I. So let’s dissect:

In 2006, psychologists Brian Goldman and Michael Kernis defined authenticity as “the unimpeded operation of one’s true or core self in one’s daily enterprise.” The four components of authenticity contain the following:

  1. Self-awareness: Knowledge and trust in your own motives, emotions, traits, strengths, weaknesses, desires, etc.
  2. Unbiased processing: Objectively evaluating any self-relevant information (such as your strengths and weakness) regardless of the source (internal or external).
  3. Behavior: Acting in a way congruent with your own values and needs regardless of the circumstances and not as a consequence of external goals.
  4. Revealing one’s self in close relationships: Being open and actively disclosing both the good and bad parts of one’s self to close others.

Trading authenticity for approval then, keeps one disconnected from their truest core self.  So how do we move from approval seeking to authentic living?

Authenticity requires self-knowledge and self-awareness. People who are truly authentic accept their strengths and weaknesses and are accountable for their actions. Their actions and values are consistent with one another.

I used to think that my imperfections and fears were to be hidden from all. If I removed the mask and let people see the real me, rejection and judgement would accompany the revelation of my truest self. While hiding my truth, I also minimized my strengths by devaluing myself and my attributes. I erroneously believed that my contributions and presence were not noted, needed nor valued.

Understanding exactly what it is that YOU value is a major step toward living authentically.  If you are unclear about what you value and desire, it’s almost impossible to live authentically. This was an ah-ha moment for me.  At one of my lowest points over the last year, I literally sat with a clean slate – a blank piece of paper and drew/wrote what was important to me in order to become clear on my values so I could begin living authentically.  Here’s what I came up with:

  • Value #1: Prioritizing my family- I could go into a shame spiral here but I will stop myself…I spent some years pushing my extended family (anyone outside my nucleus of 5) away from me in lieu of approval seeking behavior for those living in closest proximity to me (neighbors, kid’s school friends, endless activities that I thought I “should” do for acceptance, etc). I also wanted to keep my private pain away from my family.  I fancied myself as the familial caretaker, not the one who needed care. I was more comfortable in focusing on other’s problems than taking a hard look at myself. That felt too scary and vulnerable.

In clarifying my value system, I found that my “love tank” was filled up by my children, husband, sister, mother, step father, mother in law, sister/brothers in law, nieces and nephews. I had devalued my importance in these familial roles as well as their importance in my life. These family members love(d) me unconditionally, as I did them, and it was time for me to start acting in accordance with their high value in my life. And as I should have known all along, once I let them in on the challenges of my inner world, they were supporting, loving, and giving me lifelines.

  • Value #2: Connection & Compassion– I started believing and acting as if interactions I had with people were divinely inspired. That sounds crazy but it’s true. I would take a beat, a breath, each time I was one on one with someone. I wanted other people to feel that I truly cared about them in a shared heart/felt sense. I wanted them to feel safe to share their stories and for them to know they are truly cared for.  Taking a breath is also a grounding technique, which allows one to become fully present in the moment. Full presence creates a deepening connection between two people. Sharing my stories through this blog has brought me some of the most special interactions I have ever had in my life. These connections are absolutely sacred to me. They have have given me a clearer purpose, which is yet another step toward living authentically.

In therapy, I had a big fear that we returned to periodically – I was afraid that I didn’t have any real friendships and often asked how a women pushing 50 was going to find real friends. My perspective was that relationships are pretty cemented by age 50. My therapist told me repeatedly, and without wavering, that I will find my people and that my people will find me. And she was right. The more I started living in accordance with my value system, true relationships began forming and authentic friendships started to regrow. It truly was a “If you build it, they will come” time period.

This did not mean that I needed to shun existing relationships, only that I needed to release those that felt toxic. Living with connection and compassion as a driving value meant that it was time to heed my own advice: “If someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

Until this revelation, I had been willing to disregard otherwise unacceptable behavior because I thought that was the only way for the friendship to exist. It’s important to understand that each time we do this, it chips away at our sense of wholeness, our sense of self.  No, no, no, sister-self. You are worthy of so much more. 

  • Value #3: Willingness to learn and grow– Throughout this period of intensive therapy, I became a sponge. I explored, read, wrote, critiqued myself, journaled and went on retreats. I asked myself about my greatest shortcomings and my biggest attributes. What scary parts of my life am I willing to look at and decipher? When did I feel the most content in my life? How did the accumulation of traumatic events shape my thought processes and behaviors? Am I willing to “GO THERE?” Luckily,  99% of the time I said yes, even if it was only for a few minutes or even seconds.

This value, the willingness to learn and grow, was one of the greatest revelations in understanding my depression, anxiety and PTSD. Instead of feeling like a freak show of excessive, uncomfortable feelings and reactions, the pieces of the puzzle started to make sense. With time and care, it became clear that it would have been WEIRDER if I didn’t have these feelings and reactions after what I had been through. Through the core value of willingness to learn and grow, I was able to slowly give myself love, compassion and understanding.  I can assure you, this took the edge off my daily living, both for myself and my house hold.

  • Value #4: Invoke the Spirit of My Matriarchs–  In contrast to the traditional definition of matriarchy,  which is “a social system in which females hold the primary power positions in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property at the specific exclusion of male,” I created my own meaning.  My personal definition of Matriarchal Spirit is derived from the combination of attributes from my grandmother Althea, my grandmother Meta, my mother in law, Carol, and my mother, Annette.

While they passed away early in my adulthood, I have begun to revere the traits of my grandmothers and better understand their important influence in my life. My grandmother, Althea, my mom’s mom, was tall in stature, strong in physical presence and sometimes intimidating. She taught me to paint, took care of my itchy eczema when my parents were away, gave me a white bunny fur coat and muff (my most prized childhood possessions), was strong willed and a hard worker. She argued her points with my Pop-pop, which my husband can surely relate to. In contrast to my parents who, shockingly, never argued, I saw a woman who stood up for herself and her beliefs.

My grandmother, Meta, was a soft, smiling, laughing, bear-huggable soul. I would do anything to have had more time with her, yet I see/feel a lot of her in me.  When I force my hug-resistance nieces and sister to bear hug me, I feel as if I am invoking her matriarchal spirit. I think my silliness and quirkiness come from Grandmom Meta. When I picture her, I see her at her kitchen sink, laughing and smiling while she made snacks for my sister and I to eat under her massive Willow Tree. Her spirit was contagious and my soul smiles when I think of her. I hope to be that for someone one day.

My mother in law, Carol.  If you have seen her you know – beautiful inside and out. I think of her as an energizer bunny. She literally can run circles around me. But deeper than just being a “do-er” is the love for her family, her children, grandchildren and luckily for me, her daughter-in-law. She’s the person who provides help before the question is finished being asked, often without being asked.  There is never an expectation of something in return. She just gives. Let me be that willing.

Last but not least, my mother. Oh boy, my mother. Has she ever had her burdens to bear. And not just her own. She’s had to shoulder the burdens of others as well. She is unequivocally self-less, the most self-less person I’ve ever met.  She has shown my sister and I the meaning of faith and love, even when we have been prickly and not so easy to hold onto. In the face of adversity, she has been steadfastly strong, always knowing she is a child of one loving God. Always knowing she would be okay whatever comes her way, because of her faith. She is an incredible friend and deeply compassionate to everyone. She’s never met a stranger. I wish to live with a few ounces of my mother’s selfless steadfastness.

For me, Invoking the Spirit of my Matriarchs, is a melding the strengths of these women into my core values. I seek to be a woman that my children, husband, family and friends love in the same way that I love my female role models. .

So those are my Core Four Values: Prioritizing family; Connection & Compassion; Willingness to Learn & Grow; and Invoking the Spirit of My Matriarchs.  These four guide me down the path of authenticity and away from approval seeking behaviors.

Your Core Four will most likely be different than mine. Excavating your personal values will lead you towards the path of authenticity, and will hopefully guide you to the lifelong freedom of authentic living.

Thanks for the thoughts, Crazy Kanye.