By Maddie Noreika, NAMI-UW Volunteer Coordinator
Just Relax. You need to lighten up. Learn to have some fun…Over time, these sentences became some of the worst things people could say to me, and unfortunately I heard them often and no one realized how much they affected me. My freshmen year of college I attended UW-Milwaukee. At first I was so excited and I was ready to take on the world. Things changed quickly and throughout the entire semester I did not make a single valuable friendship, I struggled to get involved on campus, and I only buried myself in my school work. I just figured it was the freshmen jitters and that I would eventually fall into my place. I pulled out straight As, which was a first for me, but I still felt unsatisfied. During winter break, the thought of going back to Milwaukee made me want to hurl, so I did what I thought was best and moved back home. I transferred to the two year college in my town which only made me feel more unsatisfied and extremely embarrassed. Once again, I didn’t make a single friend, and I only buried myself in school work and work. I made the dean’s list that semester, but I felt zero satisfaction in what I was doing. The only thing during my second semester that kept me going was that I stood a chance of getting accepted into UW-Madison.
Throughout my entire freshmen year of college I was going through what I thought was just a bad spell of major anxiety and depression, but I thought it was just something I would get over and that my problems were not significant enough to reach out for help. My family constantly told me that coming back home was not a good choice for me, and that I was not the most pleasant to be around because of my mood swings, and that I had very selfish tendencies. Those tendencies came from not knowing how to process my feelings, and not having anyone to talk to that could completely understand. I was completely lost in my own world, and I struggled with showing empathy toward others. I couldn’t wrap my head around this idea that my mental health was not in a good place, and I didn’t have any coping mechanisms to handle what I was going through. I kept telling myself that everything would be better when I got to UW and that all of my problems regarding my mental health would just suddenly vanish into thin air.
I got accepted and I couldn’t wait to embark on my new journey. The journey that would solve all of my problems. I was going to come to UW, get perfect grades, make lots of friends and get into the business school to pursue a business degree. I instantly made a bunch of friends, I got involved in campus orgs, I had a job, and I was starting to establish myself. It happened so quickly and I thought that all the moves I was making were the right ones in order to live the “average college life”. Then I got my first midterm grades back and I was not happy with the outcome and realized that UW was much harder academically than where I came from. This was a trigger for me and I instantly felt too stupid to be at such a wonderful school. It would keep me up at night, and I became so wrapped up in wanting to be the best, that I wasn’t even studying properly or concentrating in a productive way. As the semester went on, I realized I hated my classes, and that my grades weren’t going to be perfect. As I struggled with this, I had long in-depth conversations with my mom about it. She had to remind me repeatedly that my GPA did not define me, and that this one semester would not define my overall success at UW. Although she was a great supporter in getting through my struggles, nothing she said made me feel better.
During the spring semester I realized that business was not for me and that I needed to make a change. I changed my major to pursue a double major in Political Science and Social Welfare. I loved my classes and I instantly saw my grades improve. I made fewer commitments with campus involvement which allowed me to study hard, and spend time with my friends without feeling guilty about it. I was content for the first time since I had started university. As things started to look up for me, I unfortunately started to feel anxious that what I was doing was not enough. I would obsess over what I needed to accomplish to get into good graduate schools, and I was only a SOPHOMORE. I thought that if I did not have the exact plans in place I would never succeed. Again, I would sit up at night and research schools and universities and “plan my life.” It never made me feel better, just tired. It eventually got so bad that I couldn’t go a day without calling myself a failure, or thinking about how other people were so much further ahead in life than me. I found that my relationships with the new friends that I had made during the year were becoming a bit strained and that I was feeling irritable almost 24/7. Eventually I hit a point and had a panic attack. That was my lowest point and I only went back up from there.
During the summer I went through the same intense anxiety and depression that I was clearly facing during my first two years of college and I had another panic attack. I was so exhausted and my family really tried to simplify my feelings by telling me “to relax” and to “think positive.” This only made it worse because I found that I couldn’t do those things easily and I thought that I would be stuck this way forever. Something that was clearly continuing to heighten my anxiety. I then did something that completely changed my life. I spent a portion of the summer working with highschoolers that struggled with severe mental illnesses. It put so much into perspective for me. It made me realize that if these kids are brave enough to face their feelings and challenges and openly talk about their mental health, then I was capable of that too. Until that moment, I would have never guessed that having a simple conversation with my doctor about my mental health would open up a whole new approach to how I think about my mental health.
This journey has come with plenty of challenges such as crippling anxiety, severe insomnia, keeping up with my personal hygiene, and suicidal thoughts. BUT it has also come with plenty of rewards such as my huge list of coping mechanisms, a stronger relationships with my friends, a safety plan for when/if I have suicidal thoughts. I've given a lot more attention to my self care and realized that I am not always able to take on every opportunity that may come my way. I've realized I can openly talk about my experiences, I can express my needs to others in a clear precise manner, and I can also recognize when I need to step away from reality to take care of myself. I have recognized that just because I am on medication, and see a therapist, and do other things to cope with my mental health, not every day is going to be a good day and that some days are going to be harder than others. I’ve also learned to not let people invalidate my feelings, because no matter how absurd my reasoning behind it is, I am allowed to feel how I feel, at least for a short period of time. Overall, this journey has taught me that I am capable of self-love and that no matter how hard it might be to see sometimes, I can love who I am and I will only continue to love who I am. I am beautiful, I am smart, I deserve my dreams, and I deserve to feel strong and be free of self-doubt.
By Natalie Hammer, NAMI-UW Ambassador
To anyone struggling with mental illness:
You will have good and bad days. Even on your worst days, please know there are better days ahead. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel. You are capable of conquering this. Keep holding on. This does NOT define who you are. You are not crazy. You are strong. You are a fighter. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Especially your mind—don’t believe everything you think. And if all you did today was hold yourself together, I am proud of you. Take each day one step at a time. You will be okay.
Above all else, please know this: you are loved and you are cared for.
Author’s Note: Although this post is short, it has incredible significance. Every now and then, we need a reminder of these words of encouragement, as we go through the ups and downs mental illness and life have to throw our way. Stay strong and keep the faith in your healing.
By Laura Klatt, NAMI-UW Ambassador
Hey all! I’d like to apologize for my radio silence. The reason therefore? I’ve been in treatment out West in Denver, Colorado since late February. I struggle with an eating disorder, anxiety, OCD, depression, and panic disorder. I’d like to dedicate this post to the experience(s) I’ve had over the course of my UW career with treatment, medical leaves of absence, mental health, and putting your own well-being first.
I’ve had to take a medical leave of absence every year for the past three years...for at least one semester of each academic calendar, sometimes two. It’s been a challenging pattern: I usually arrive in the fall ready to go, with a support team of therapist, psychiatrist, and general practitioner in place (not to mention support groups- HEY WiChat!)...and then I deteriorate over the course of the semester to the point at which I physically and mentally cannot. I just cannot….cannot take care of myself, cannot feed myself, cannot maintain relationships, cannot control my panic attacks, cannot keep up with extracurricular commitments, cannot do anything but panic, write A-level papers, and panic some more. How in the world I manage to function academically in the face of serious physical and mental debilitation is a stunning enigma. However, my concentration and memory were suffering as my body and the rest of my mind lost stamina, and eventually, the forecast for my academic record was beginning to teeter on precarious footing...nothing had happened yet, but I was definitely in the danger zone, which pushed me into some safety danger zones as well.
Medical and mental health treatment has saved my life several times over the past eight years. I felt a ton of shame and a mountain of shock the first time I was asked to leave UW-Madison during my freshman year. I had left high school for periods in the past, but that was different. College was supposed to be the promised land- the answer to my illness, the cure, the safety zone. College was not supposed to be the place where I got sicker and where my mental health became more unstable. I was supposed to thrive, not die! I was supposed to love my life, not want to kill myself! Needless to say, I was confused. But my confusion had no bearing on the situation- reality was as reality was, and rehabilitation was necessary. The next two times I left, including this last one, were less of a shock. My life had become, as I said before, a pattern of arrive, decline, withdraw, seek treatment. But my mental space was different each time. I’m writing this post not to glorify my illness or prove how “good” I was at being sick, but to show that growth can happen even in the most unexpected and unideal of circumstances.
I have learned so much more from my life experiences than I have in the lecture halls and discussion classrooms of UW-Madison. Just being a human, having a very human experience, has taught me about compassion, resilience, love, connection, and confronting fear. Most of all, it has taught me that putting emphasis on one’s physical and mental wellbeing is far from selfish. I learned that I cannot help others, I cannot connect with others, I cannot be involved in anything that matters or makes a difference, unless I take care of myself first. And that’s what I’ve been learning to do these past years. That’s what I’m learning to do now!
Bottom line: taking time off to heal is not a failure. Taking time off REPEATEDLY is not a failure. Healing is a blessing. Taking time to heal is a success, a truly mature and responsible action. There is no selfishness here, only proper self-love and self-care.
Suicide is not selfish. It is not a choice. It is not a coward’s way out. It is not the answer.
Suicide is preventable.
Growing up, I had a silent struggle with mental illness that deepened into suicidal thoughts when I came to college. I tried to deal with it by myself, but that was only making things worse. It wasn’t until I opened up about what I was going through that I found the support I needed. I was lucky to receive treatment and learn how to manage my anxiety and depression.
One of the most important things I learned in all of this is that mental illness is much more common than I thought. It wasn’t a burden I had to carry on my own.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. However, many misconceptions still exist about these issues. As college students, it’s not always easy to prioritize our own mental health. That’s why it’s so important to break the stigma around suicide and mental illness to show everyone that no one is alone in their struggles. At UW, Ask.Listen.Save. is here to support you.
Ask.Listen.Save. is UW-Madison’s suicide prevention organization. It encourages people to ASK how their friends are doing, LISTEN and pay attention to possible warning signs, and potentially SAVE a life.
Joining Ask.Listen.Save. was one of the best decisions of my college career. I found a community of people who understood and empowered me to advocate for others.
The organization provides resources around the community for students who may be afraid to ask for help.
I must also encourage all of you to come to our annual Out of the Darkness Walk on April 22nd to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and walk for loss and life!
It is important to remember that suicide does not discriminate. People of all genders, ages, and identities can be at risk. As fellow peers, it’s important to look out for changes in friends’ behavior that may be warning signs of suicide.
For resources or more information about Ask.Listen.Save., go to www.asklistensave.org.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You matter!
By Mackenzie Cowles, NAMI-UW Ambassador
My personal experience with mental illness began the spring semester of my freshman year, however, I was in denial that I have been experiencing a mental illness my entire life. When things began to fall apart with my roommate and my living situation, I felt uncomfortable and unwelcome in my own room. This is when my very high levels of anxiety began. She was extremely manipulative, she made me feel like everything was my fault and she made me think that I did not deserve to feel happiness. I fell into a state of depression. I was incredibly sad and lonely, I had given up trying in my classes and I even had to drop a class because I was doing so poorly. I was on the phone with my parents, younger sister and my best friend from home every single day. All I wanted to do was drop out of school and come home permanently. My lowest point was when I stayed in bed all day and did not even get up to eat or go to the bathroom. I paralyzed and incredibly numb.
After hitting my lowest point, I decided something needed to change in my life because I did not want to go another day with feeling like this. That was when I reached out to the student mental health services at University Health Services (UHS) on campus. I started regularly seeing someone there. In addition, I went home during spring break and talked to both a psychologist and psychiatrist. I was prescribed antidepressants and took them for about six months until I felt like I no longer needed them. Admitting to myself that I needed professional help and finally going to seek help changed my life in every way.
I look back on my life and I realize that I have been experiencing anxiety since I was a little girl. I think in many ways our society tells us to just “be strong” or “don’t be sad” or “get it together”. I will spend the rest of my life encouraging people who think that they might be experiencing a mental illness to seek support from professionals, from people who have been through similar experiences, and from people like NAMI club members who are extremely supportive and understanding. To this day I still struggle with my anxiety, but I am happy to say I have not experienced any more episodes of depression. While this was a terrible time in my life, it also helped me find a new passion for dispelling the stigma that surrounds mental health.
By Natalie Hammer, NAMI-UW Ambassador
Something I continue to learn is that it is okay to ask for help, as there is always someone there to help you. Whether you talk to a friend, a roommate, your CA, a parent, a teacher, a counselor, people are willing to help you get the help you need in fighting your battle against mental illness. Luckily here at UW, we have amazing opportunities to help with your mental illness.
Recently, I decided to take further steps in my healing and I made a mental health consultation at UHS. What I really like about this is you can either talk to someone over the phone or in person for your appointment. During this 30-45 minute consultation, you are asked about your previous experiences with mental health and the reason you came. From your information, you work with someone to create an individualized plan of action. Services at UHS range from individual and group therapy to workshops for specific topics. Also, they offer outside sources if needed in order to get what works best for you. Personally, I wish I ‘d taken advantage of these services earlier on in the year because there are many things offered that could aid you in your healing!
Also, since I’m apart of NAMI, I would like to give a shameless plug to WiChat on Mondays from 7-8pm on the 3rd floor of the SAC! I haven’t gone YET because of work scheduling, but I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about this. It’s a peer support group that is there every week to talk about anything and everything you have going on.
My biggest tip to you all is to utilize your resources and know that it’s okay to ask for help. There are SO many people that are more than happy to help you, myself included!
By Teresa Turco, NAMI-UW Treasurer
Whenever I ask my friends how they’re doing, I notice a pattern in their responses: they are always “stressed,” “busy,” “tired.” Their responses don’t change based on the lack of sunlight in the week or the overwhelming onslaught of midterms or a poorly planned weekend bender. Collectively, we’ve come to evaluate our mood based on our to-do list and because of this, we’ve zeroed in on the negative. By learning to fixate on our stressors, we condition ourselves to constantly worry. We feel busy during syllabus week and stressed during spring break.
College life is challenging—we’re confronted with student loans, paper deadlines, exams, and the pressure of knowing this is supposed to be the time of our lives. It is normal to feel stress and to experience negative emotions. But it is not adaptive or healthy to chronically feel stressed, and it’s particularly maladaptive to create a social narrative on commiserating constant stress.
Chronic stress can cause a variety of health problems: prolonged tension in the muscles, pain in the neck and upper back, increased risk for hypertension and stroke, high levels of stress hormones, etc. Beyond the health risks, our rumination on the stressors in our lives sets up counterproductive styles of thinking which can perpetuate our feelings of anxiety.
College life is stressful, but there will always have another exam to take or group project to struggle through. And after college, there will be stress from work deadlines and inept managers and relationship problems. Stressors are a constant part of life, but stress doesn’t have to be.
For me, NAMI has emphasized the importance of mental health. Even those with subclinical levels of anxiety could benefit from taking care of themselves. Everyone experiences mental health problems, the same way we all occasionally get colds. Individuals with anxiety are taught to focus on breathing, to doodle, picture their worries falling like leaves from a tree. They are taught to cope with their anxiety, to care for themselves, and to say no when things are too much. In the same way, everyone should feel comfortable to take steps in managing their own stress.
I’ve come to understand and validate mental health concerns in everyday interactions, to notice how the response to “how’s it going?” can reveal a pattern in stress levels. Listening to my stressed, busy, tired classmates recount the horror of their schedules day after day, I vowed to myself to always answer “how are you?” with a new answer, to come up with something to say about my day other than how hard it was, to stop training myself to focus on the stressors in my life. No matter how busy and stressful it gets, life is good.
By Steve Stark, Live Free Student Wellness and Recovery
My story of substance abuse starts like many others. In high school, I drank and smoked weed with my friends. It was fun and exciting, just the latest adventure of our young lives. It seemed harmless, too: we were safe and responsible (as responsible as teenagers can be), and there were no serious consequences beyond a hangover or the munchies. One thing I realized right away was how much I enjoyed the feeling of being intoxicated. Everything seemed perfect and I was finally at peace with the world. It would be years before I realized substances affected me differently than others—that this would be the beginning of my addiction.
Moving away from home and into my freshman dorm at UW gave me many new freedoms: the freedom to make my own schedule, the freedom to go out whenever I pleased and stay out as late as I wanted—and the freedom to ingest substances whenever I wanted. Of course, I took full advantage of this. The first time I recall anyone questioning my substance use was the second semester of freshman year—my roommate, frustrated with my habits, asked me why I needed to drink and smoke so much. I wish I could say that was when I turned things around, but I just brushed him off.
I can’t pin down the exact moment things started to change, but as time went on, my substance use went from being something I did for fun to something I couldn’t have fun without. I dreaded going back home to spend time with family because I couldn’t use the way I wanted to. The consequences started to pile up. I got arrested. My grades plummeted. I got arrested again. I began to have mental health issues. I started becoming involved with more dangerous substances, spending my time with more dangerous friends.
I’ll spare you the details, but my life had to fall apart almost completely before I was willing to admit I had a problem. I burned bridges with people I was close to, spent a lot of money, was hospitalized for weeks for a serious injury I received while intoxicated, and even got asked to leave UW. It got to a point where I was barely functional as a person. Eventually, I had had enough of the consequences and decided to ask for help.
One of the important lessons I’ve learned from recovery is that I can’t do it alone. I wasn’t able to stay sober at first, and only through building new relationships with a community of like-minded people was I able to feel at home and finally put down the drugs and alcohol for good (I also had to cut ties with some of my more negative influences, but that’s a story for another time). I got back into UW and the community of individuals in Live Free—the only student recovery group on campus-- has been a big part of my journey. I’m a member of a 12-step group, which has also played a crucial role in my recovery.
It’s been over two years since I’ve last had a drug or a drink of alcohol and my life is better in every measurable way. The people I’m close to say I’m a completely different person. Some of the benefits were immediate and obvious—I started to look and feel better right away. Some of them were subtler: I had more time and energy to succeed in school and work, and even to explore my passions and hobbies on the side. I got into the best shape of my life. I developed new relations with wonderful people. Recovery has been a long and sometimes difficult journey, but there’s nothing in the world I would trade it for.
For more information on Live Free and what they do for students, their website is linked here.
By Maddie Schebil, NAMI-UW Ambassador
During my freshman year here at UW-Madison, I went through one of the most challenging experiences of my life. It was something I didn't see coming, but should have. No, it was homesickness. No, it wasn't the challenge of college level course. No, it wasn't making new friends. It was anxiety.
Growing up, I was always a Type A kind of kid. I was never late for school, I always did my homework on time, and I organized my things to a T. Looking back I would say I was an anxious child. If my mom was 20 minutes late picking me up for school, I would cry. Knowing this about myself now, I should have expected anxiety to rear its ugly face when I went to school, but I didn't.
After the first couple months of college, I began to feel very different. I would wake up every single morning feeling like I was about to take an exam or give a speech. There was a pit in my stomach that wouldn't go away no matter what I did. Naturally, I would call my mom. She would know how to help. See my entire family has anxiety. My mom, both my sisters, my brother and my dad (who doesn't like to admit it). I knew this was something that could affect me too. Anxiety can be situational, but it can also be genetic. After a couple weeks of feeling this way my mom thought I needed to do something about it. This wasn't just being homesick, normal college kid stuff. This was a much bigger issue.
So I made an appointment with UHS and let me tell you it was the best decision I ever made. After a session or two it was obvious my anxiety stemmed from a chemical imbalance in my brain. My psychiatrist thought I should go on medication and see if it helped.
Sure enough after about a week and a half, I started to feel like myself again. I didn't wake up feeling as anxious, and I was sleeping normally again. Of course this didn't mean my anxiety was gone completely. I still deal with panic attacks and anxious moments, but I have control over it. And with the help of medical professionals, I learned skills to help me cope with it.
I am so happy that my mother was so understanding of how crippling living with anxiety can be. She directed me to the right people to get the help I needed, and I am forever grateful. Most people don't talk about mental health when they talk about going away to college, but it is something that affects more people than you would think. If you ever feel like you need help or support, do not be afraid to go out there and get it. You are not weak because of it, you are actually stronger than you can imagine for being able to recognize that there are things you can do to be your best self.
By Hannah Entner, NAMI-UW Ambassador
A great quote from one of my favorite movies, Legally Blonde is “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t.” I’ve always thought this line was funny and maybe true, but never really thought about it until recently. Can you think of a time when you left the gym, a yoga class, or finished a run in a bad mood? Probably not. In fact, every time I leave the gym I feel like I could conquer the world. This mood boost happens because exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, the hormones that make you feel good inside. This is the reason you are constantly hearing that exercise is good for mental health. Endorphins help to decrease anxiety and depression. Chemically, this makes sense. It is proven to me every time I feel an anxious episode coming on and decide to head to the gym. Or when I’m having a particularly bad day at school and I stop at the gym on my way home. Nothing special happens between the time I walk through those doors and walk out, but I always feel significantly better afterwards, like I had never had those negative feelings in the first place. However, I don’t think endorphins are the only reason that exercise is good for our mental health. When you work out, you are doing something for yourself. It may be to destress, lose weight, or improve heart health, but all of these are ways to improve yourself and no one else. This is something to feel good about because it can be really hard to motivate yourself to exercise. But once you get there, it makes sense to feel happy because you achieved something. Good for you! You deserve those endorphins! So pick a type of exercise you love, because who doesn’t feel good when they do something they love, and the next time you’re feeling down, try to work out instead. You truly will feel the benefits inside and out.