by Bianca Ruffin, Policy and Legal Affairs and CAAC Program Assistant
When I was an incoming freshman at Virginia Tech, now more than a decade ago, I remember feeling a mix of extreme fear and complete elation over the impending move from home to pursue a higher education. Academically, I had always thrived and I even received a scholarship. To me, this signified I was prepared for college. Unfortunately, it became rather clear-and quite quickly-that this was not the case.
As a teen, I dealt with mental health conditions that culminated in moments where I came close to suicide. I didn't understand what I was feeling and I was unaware of how to ask for the appropriate help. I lived with extreme anxieties that led me to fear the scrutiny of my peers, whether real or merely perceived. To safeguard myself, I became increasingly more reclusive-even avoiding eating in the school cafeteria for two years. I turned all of my focus to my school work and did so well that most people didn't even realize I had a problem. It was a charade that I could only keep up for so long.
When I was 17, I began making doctor's appointments for myself. I snuck in an appointment to speak to someone about my mental health. Whatever was going on in my head, I must've worried my doctor enough because she prescribed medication within 40 minutes of meeting me. It frightened me and I vowed to never reach out to a mental health professional again.
Unfortunately, this thought process did not help me in college one bit. I still had all these feelings to deal with. I was in unfamiliar territory and suddenly more responsible for myself than ever before. College became so overwhelming that my difficulties with anxiety and depression took over and my academics bore the brunt of my struggles. I went from having a scholarship to facing academic probation-almost every semester for three years.
The Cook Counseling Center staff at Virginia Tech took notice and reached out to me, urging me to seek out a type of group therapy the university provided that would teach me study skills and time management. As it turned out, it was much more in-depth than that. For the first time in ages, I didn't feel so alone because I was sitting and conversing amongst a group of peers in similar situations to mine. I also sought out individual therapy provided by the university and the combination helped turn my life around. I will always be grateful to my alma mater for that.
The problems I faced are not mine alone. Other young adults may be facing feelings similar to what I did when I began at Virginia Tech. It doesn't matter if a person is going to college, taking online classes, going on a break after high school, joining the military or pursuing work immediately-if someone is transitioning from a teenager into adulthood and they feel like they need or want mental health treatment, they should. I hope people do not discourage themselves from accessing services the way that I did. It cost me three extremely valuable years of college in which I missed out on internship opportunities, studying abroad and other extracurricular activities that could've helped shape my career.
Sites like StrengthOfUs.org enable young adults to connect and share their stories online by joining a social networking community. StrengthOfUs.org offers a variety of resources on issues important to young adults, including independent living, campus life, employment, mental health issues and much more.
It is important for students, friends and families to know that many colleges and universities provide mental health services or partner with communities to offer adequate mental health care to students. Check to see if the school in question has a student health department and if they include mental health services. If a college or university doesn't cover such services, or a different career path is being taken, try checking with the nearest NAMI State Organization or NAMI Affiliate as they may be able to help locate community mental health services. These days, continuing education has many faces-from online universities to private colleges to vocational schools-and finding what's most appropriate for an individual's situation is key.
I'm glad that I finally took the initiative to seek help. I hit a few speed bumps along the way but I realized there really was hope and I've carried that hope with me ever since. The day that I graduated from Virginia Tech still ranks as one of my highest accomplishments, considering how very close I came to not realizing that goal.
Don't give up on mental health treatment if you're faced with difficulties. Not all doctors or group therapies are the same and not every one will be right for you. I always compared trying to find the right doctor and the right treatment to trying on a pair of pants; it may take several pairs before you find the right fit.