Wellness: Dealing with Depression

Earlier this semester, an informal online poll conducted by The Phoenix revealed startling levels of depression and anxiety among the 12 percent of the student body which chose to respond. The previous article in a Phoenix series about the data focusd on mental health services available at Swarthmore, in the form of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Now, the series will examine on what happens after CAPS, detailing the experiences of students who attempted to receive help from teachers and administrators in dealing with psychological issues.

While the survey numbers may not apply to the entire student body, more than half of respondents reported suffering from anxiety or depression while at Swarthmore, while almost 40 percent of respondents had considered transferring schools (despite Swarthmore’s retention rate of 96 percent, placing the school at the top of The Daily Beast’s “Colleges with the Happiest Students”). Of the thirty questions included in the survey, a handful were repeated to prevent response bias.  Only students with college accounts were able to take the survey. While it is impossible to produce statistical inferences from the results, responses are still representative of respondents’ experience. The survey speaks for what amounts to a large interview pool, not all Swarthmore students. Any percentages quoted correspond only to the segment of campus that responded to the survey.

In addition to filling out the survey, a handful of students chose to  share detailed stories of struggling to stay mentally healthy at Swarthmore. They told of good and bad experiences with CAPS and the administration, and of a battle to maintain their self-esteem in a competitive academic and athletic environment. What follows is one of those stories.

Emily*, a freshman, was diagnosed with depression over winter break this year. While Emily had experienced depression previously, during her junior year of high school, she had chalked up her feelings to having mono at the time and to stress. She did not go on medication, and saw a therapist for a short while.

Before winter break this year, Emily felt slightly unhappy, mostly due to feelings of inadequacy caused by her classes. “During the whole first semester, I just kept thinking to myself that I was the stupidest person at Swarthmore,” she said. Emily believes this feeling is not uncommon in Swarthmore’s highly pressurized environment, filled with talented students.

Emily believes that her sports team ultimately set off her depression, combined with the stress of transitioning to college. Surrounded by fellow athletes hyper-focused on their weight and dealing with body image issues of their own, Emily started what she described as “an obsessive way of thinking,” which quickly transitioned into depression and negative self-talk (though she added that she felt being on a team had provided her with a vital support system at Swarthmore). Combined with struggling with her classes, Emily explained that everything became negative in her mind.

Back at home, Emily, typically extroverted, stayed at home and chose not to see any of her friends. “I just had a total lack of energy and didn’t want to do anything, and was pretty miserable,” she recounted. Eventually, Emily’s mother sat her down and told her that her essential Emily-ness was no longer there.

Until that point, Emily said, she had not realized that she was depressed, and neither had her friends at Swarthmore. “It’s hard to recognize that you’re depressed until someone close to you is like, ‘Hey, where are you?’” Emily said. “That may be part of the reason I didn’t recognize it until fall semester — people didn’t know me well enough to know that I wasn’t doing well.”

Over winter break, Emily focused on doing yoga and working through her body image issues. She also chose to stop drinking, which she felt added another aspect to her mental health problems which she did not want to address.

Second semester began well, as Emily’s newly prescribed medication was functioning properly. “I went and saw a counselor once, but I was feeling really good and I didn’t go back,” Emily said.

Emily only hs one bad experience in the first few months of the second semester, during an instance in which she combined alcohol with her medication. “I drank the normal amount that I usually would have, but alcohol can make you more depressed when you’re already on antidepressants,” Emily explained.

The next morning, Emily felt horrible. “I didn’t want to be alone and I was really freaking out,” Emily recounted. “I was crying and didn’t want to be alone. I just remember lying in my bed for a while … I felt like I was moving a ton and I was probably hallucinating,” she remembered.

After the first few months back at school from winter break, “things started going down again,” Emily said. “Slowly at first, I just started feeling a little bit down, and I didn’t totally recognize it at first.” Then Emily noticed she was having difficulty focusing on her schoolwork, staring at her computer for hours attempting to focus and accomplishing nothing. She would build up anxiety about assignments in her head until they were impossible to complete.

Things came to head with a paper for one of Emily’s classes a few weeks ago. Emily had been thinking of upping her medication dosage but had not done so yet, and had a complete breakdown about her paper. “I just freaked out and couldn’t do it, couldn’t go to class, couldn’t do anything,” Emily. In the morning after the breakdown, she visited CAPS and asked for her dosage to be increased.

Emily had a positive experience at CAPS, where she received an emergency counseling session. “Mostly at that point, I needed some validation that what I was feeling was connected to my depression, a chemical imbalance and not me procrastinating or not trying to work hard. It’s something that’s out of my control,” Emily explained. “That was helpful that [the counselor] validated that.”

Emily emailed her professors, explaining that she had not attended class that morning or turned in her paper due to struggling with depression and having to go to Worth, and found that they were mostly accommodating. One teacher responded that he hoped she felt better, but expected her to continue participating in and attending class, which Emily thought was an odd response.

Two of her other professors, on the other hand, were enormously helpful. Both teachers responded saying that they had struggled with depression and anxiety in the past, gave her an extension on her paper, and invited her to speak with them during office hours and to get coffee with them. “Both wanted to talk to me about how I was doing outside of being a student,” Emily said. “It was really nice for someone to understand, to hear that a teacher had been there and knew I wasn’t just fucking around.”

Emily isn’t sure to what extent Swarthmore has affected her mental health. “I think I would be having these problems no matter where I was–that’s sort of the essence of the transition to college and my own issues and my own chemical makeup at this point in my life,” she explained.

At the same time, Emily questions how things could be different if she didn’t attend Swarthmore. “I also wonder sometimes if I would be doing a little bit better at an institution that wasn’t so competitive and where I didn’t feel so insecure, but I don’t really think that would necessarily change anything,” she said.

Overall, Emily has felt supported by the people at Swarthmore. “The teachers that I’ve had encounters with are great. There are maybe some smaller problems, but that’s also just the nature of going to a competitive school. This community is all really high-achieving, and it’s hard being in a competitive place when you’re feeling insecure, where everyone else around you is succeeding at such a high level, but I don’t think that’s something I would change, it’s just the circumstances,” Emily said. Nearly half of the respondents to the Phoenix survey agreed with Emily, saying that stress, anxiety, and/or depression are necessary byproducts of receiving a rigorous education.

While Emily felt supported by the counselors and teachers to whom she reached out at Swarthmore, Laura Fitzgerald ‘14, who suffers from depression and has attempted suicide, had an entirely different experience. Several of Fitzgerald’s interactions with deans and mental health professionals at the college exacerbated her shame and guilt over her illness, and, she felt, served to perpetuate the stigmatization of those who suffer from mental illness. Next week, this series will detail Fitzgerald’s interactions, and examine the process by which administrators deal with students who suffer from mental illness.


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