The college environment can generate a great deal of stress for students. It is not uncommon for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues to profoundly affect students’ academic performance during their years away at school.
While many students experience symptoms of depression and anxiety upon entering college, Madison Lavallee dealt with mental illness even before she left for school. Following the death of two of her grandparents within two weeks of each her junior year of high school, and later a sexual assault at the hands of her childhood friend, Lavallee felt the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
A former student at George Mason University in Virginia, Lavallee is now a junior sociology major at the University of Rhode Island. She still remembers how entering a new school in an unfamiliar setting intensified her feelings of depression and anxiety.
“Freshman year was fun, but stressful. I was in a completely new environment,” Lavallee said.
Although she struggled to keep her grades up, Lavallee was able to maintain a decent GPA throughout her first year, she said.
That all changed her sophomore year at George Mason, when her condition began to severely impact her lifestyle and lead to drug use.
While Lavallee bore the weight of mental illness brought on by dealing with the all-too-common fallout of sexual assault, her depression worsened at school — in part, because she was away from her family, who she described as her strongest support system. Her deteriorating mental health ushered in increased drug use and risky behavior, resulting in strained relationships.
“I would have to keep secrets from the people I loved the most and I created another version of myself,” she said.
She described how her unwanted sexual experience caused her to feel anxiety numbed only through drugs and alcohol. According to Lavallee, she indulged in drugs and alcohol at parties, and had unprotected sex with strangers while under the influence.
“When you’re in that state of mind, you have no respect for yourself,” she said.
Lavallee’s mentality during that time was not unique or abnormal. Studies show those who have experienced an unwanted sexual encounter are significantly more likely to suffer from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. Although both men and women who fall victim to these encounters suffer similar rates of depression, women make up 82 percent of juvenile victims of sexual assault and 90 percent of adult victims. One in six American women have experienced a sexual assault in their lifetime, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
Lavallee, like many other college students, found the stress of rigorous academic requirements only worked to aggravate her depression and anxiety—and worsened her substance abuse. During finals week that year, the stress Lavallee struggled resulted in a five-day long drug and alcohol binge.
“I wandered the streets with a close friend, with no idea where we were, or where we were going. We would hang out with people we never knew, take drugs from anyone, and have no regard of safety,” she recalled.
Her mental illnesses, substance abuse and poor academic standing all exacerbated one another, Lavallee said, triggering a cycle of self-destruction that seemed like it would never end.
“I would look at my grades and see I was doing poorly. And instead of fixing it, I would just get more drunk or high until I didn’t remember,” Lavallee said. She needed a drink and a pill just to pull herself out of bed every morning, she said.
“I was consumed by drugs and alcohol, spending my day smoking, snorting and drinking to numb the pain and stress I felt. By the end of that semester, I had spent almost five thousand dollars on mind-altering substances,” Lavallee admitted.
Drugs, especially opiates, were Lavallee’s go-to getaway. They helped her keep up appearances when her anxiety became overwhelming.
“I would snort a few and then walk around like I was fine, oftentimes spending time with family and friends,” she said. “I had become very, very good at hiding things about myself.”
So good, in fact, that she was even able to fool herself. While she attended George Mason University, Lavallee found herself among the countless college students in the United States that do not seek treatment for their mental illness.
“I thought about it,” she said. “But at the time I did not realize I really had a problem and needed medical help.”
Research from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention suggests that the vast majority of students who screen positive for depression do not seek treatment.
Active Minds, a national organization with a chapter at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is one of many student-run organizations around the country hoping to change that.
In order to do so, Active Minds is trying to combat the stigma surrounding mental health and depression problems.
James Michaels, the newly assigned president of the Active Minds chapter at UMass, said he was struck by the group’s mission. He felt motivated to inform others about issues like depression, anxiety and addiction.
Mental health issues are more complicated than people may think, Michaels said.
“Depression isn’t just being sad all the time, anxiety isn’t just being worried all the time, addiction isn’t a choice,” Michaels said.
Emily Dykstra, the secretary of Active Minds at UMass, explained that the group aims to end stigma around mental illness.
“Active Minds isn’t a support group, which is a common misconception,” Dykstra said. “Our goal is to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness, especially that which is on the UMass campus. We do this by holding events to spread awareness and starting the conversation about mental health.”
Michaels explained education is important for those struggling with addiction.
“Before being in Alcoholics Anonymous and being explained what addiction is, I had no idea,” Michaels said. “I just kind of felt in my bones that the way I was using drugs wasn’t normal. I was kind of having trouble stopping and said, ‘I don’t know maybe I’m addicted.’ But I really thought it was just a physical thing, I wasn’t having any withdrawal symptoms and it’s probably fine.”
Michaels believes that removing the stigma associated with mental illness is critical.
“People won’t be afraid to ask for those real answers if there is no real stigma,” he said. “I think that maybe if I had a better understanding things could have happened differently for me.”
At UMass, the Center of Counseling and Psychological Health (CCPH) is a resource for students looking to find treatment for mental illness. CCPH offers both individual and group therapy. Individual therapy involves meeting with a clinician to identify problems and work to find solutions. Group therapy meets for 90 minutes weekly through the end of each semester, with specialized groups for different issues.
“I would say that it is incredibly important to acknowledge that you are suffering and that these feelings are real and that you are worth the effort to seek the help you need, no matter how scary, how uncomfortable it might be, no matter what gender, race, creed, religion or any of those things you identify with,” Michaels said.
Lavallee urges those experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety to find a line of communication.
“Get help and do not self medicate, it will become a problem that will only end in misery,” she said. “You are valuable, redeemable and loved.”