An Open Letter to College Students About An Issue Too Few Students Talk About: Anxiety

A friend of mine, a young author named Jake Heilbrunn, recently published his first book. Jake sent me the following letter to post for college students to read. The letter offers a dramatic example of how negative feelings like intense anxiety and even depression can indicate a crisis, and a crisis eventually becomes an opportunity.

Dear College Student,

Here you are at college. You’ve settled into your dorm, memorized your class buildings without needing a map, joined a club or two, made some friends and are enjoying the freedom of being on your own. Hopefully, you are enjoying what is portrayed as the “best four years of your life,” and loving every minute of it. However, you may be experiencing something else—feelings that you didn’t expect, and which no one seemed to talk about.

Two years ago, I started my freshman semester of college. Prior to leaving for college, I couldn’t wait for the parties, the endless fun, taking cool classes, meeting girls, making tons of friends and having a blast on my own. My focus was solely fixed on the joys I eagerly yearned to experience. Yet, I wish someone had shared with me the truth that I’m going to share with you. I wish someone had told me what everyone else’s Instagrams and Facebooks didn’t show. I wish someone had explained that behavior is public, and thoughts are private. I wish someone had shared with me the realities about student life in college that no one seems to openly talk about: anxiety.

The truth is that millions of students around the country are experiencing various intensities of anxiety and depression. These two emotional states, the two most common mental health diagnoses among college campuses, have become epidemic in their frequencies.

Few if any college students post pictures onto Facebook or similar sites revealing how unhappy or anxious they are. That’s not how people use social media. Social media invites sharing of the good times. How high is the probability that many of those friends of yours who appear in their social media pictures to be so happy in fact are struggling emotionally? One study by the ACHA (American College Health Association) revealed that over half of college students have experienced overwhelming anxiety in the last 12 months…over 50%!

“Anxiety” was just a word to me before I started college. I was—and still am—a genuinely happy kid. The dense ball that sat uncomfortably in my chest throughout most of my freshman year was a new feeling. The tight knot that climbed up my throat, creating a choking sensation that at times made it difficult for me to speak, was a foreign, but very real feeling. Unfortunately, for months it didn’t go away.

Of course, other than close family members and a handful of friends from high school, nobody knew I was struggling—and I didn’t want them to know. I didn’t want to be perceived as weak or unhappy. On the outside, I looked like a happy, well rounded kid who had his stuff together: I joined a business club, created friendships, played intermural soccer, made the Dean’s List, and went to parties. No one saw the times when I broke down crying in my dorm’s staircase. What no one saw was my daily struggle trying to understand this anxious feeling and what was causing it. I continued to make sure I appeared “all good,” both in front of people and on social media.

I wish I would have known then that over 45% of college students were feeling that things were hopeless and over 1 in 2 students felt “very lonely” that year. The simple knowledge that I wasn’t alone could have made such a big difference.

I love social media and think it’s great for so many things, but while in school, I used it in a self-degrading comparative fashion. Looking back now, I wish I had known then how social media doesn’t present the full story. It had been offering a view of just a small fragment of my friends lives, a view that may have been totally at odds with the negative emotions that they also were feeling. I see now how self-destructive it was to compare my own life and happiness to friends’ online presence. I wish I could have realized then that when people post pictures that make them look good, they may at times struggle with anxiety as well.

I remember reading the heart-wrenching story about Madison Holleran, a girl at the University of Pennsylvania who took her own life. Madison, like me, appeared to be the perfect student: solid grades, star athlete, good looking, social, etc. Unlike me, Madison committed suicide. As reported in a New York Times article, everyone who knew her was “stunned” ,” “There were no red flags, warning signs, nothing,” a family friend said. Her family and friends were “stunned. My stomach twisted when I read about this story. Each year, 5,000 people, age 15 – 24, take their own lives. This story made it real—Madison Holleran wasn’t just a number. She was a person. A college student. My age. With loving parents. And friends. Like me.

Of course, not everyone experiences anxiety or depression. It is my deepest wish that you are happy and healthy. I hope that you don’t experience these negative feelings and issues. But if you are going through a rough patch, please consider the following three truths (and even if you are not, it can help you be sensitive to the fact that some of your friends and peers might be experiencing these kinds of things).

1.) You are not alone

No matter how lonely or isolated you may feel, you are not alone. The numbers don’t lie. Don’t be fooled by online smiles. It’s a self-created image that doesn’t necessarily represent the full truth that someone is living.

2.) Reaching out for help leads to change. Reaching out to others represents true strength and self-confidence

My life changed for the good when I made the decision to reach out to a counselor. Initially, I went for “career counseling” guidance, as I had no idea what I wanted to study. Yet, the sessions quickly turned into therapy where I could express what I was experiencing. At the time, I hid that I was seeing a “career” counselor from friends, thinking that it was a sign of weakness to ask for help. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The counselor I saw literally changed my life . I credit where I am today to seeing a counselor.
While you may feel scared, hesitant or embarrassed to seek help, reaching out represents true strength. Being vulnerable and acknowledging that you don’t have everything figured out (hint: no one else does either) makes you human. All humans from time to time face problems. Talking about problems with someone who asks questions that lead you to new perspectives and who encourages you to discover new options—a friend, counselor, family member or teacher—can make a world’s difference.

3.) You are not trapped. You have way more options than you could possibly imagine

When I was feeling so anxious, I felt isolated and trapped. I was sure that nothing would change for the better, and that there was only one path for me. This belief could not have been further from the truth. Similarly, where you are right now and what you are experiencing is temporary. I promise that one day you too will be able to look back at the difficult time you may be experiencing now, and you will be able to smile.
Many students’ problems have solutions that can enable them to enjoy college. At the same time, if you feel the need to take a leave from school, do it. I remember feeling like such a failure when I made the decision to leave school. It happened to be the best decision of my life and I couldn’t be more at peace with where I am today. If you let yourself listen to your inner voice and heed your quiet intuitions, you to may decide to take a road less traveled.
So if you have been feeling anxious, depressed, or if you are beset by doubt, reach out. You have your entire life ahead of you. Pick a path that will enable you some day to look back on what you’re experiencing now and understand how it made you a stronger, better person.

Jake Heilbrunn’s book Off the Beaten Trail: A Young Man’s Soul-Searching Journey Through Central America, relates the outcome of his decision to end his episode of anxiety about being in college by making a dramatic change. Without knowing it when he was writing his book, Jake’s college experience and also his travels illustrate engagingly the principles for overcoming anxiety that I have written about in Prescriptions Without Pills.