In the Blog
Too Depressed to go to Class Today: Surviving Academia With Depression
Illustration: Saul Freedman-Lawson
Being depressed can feel like being stuck in a deep hole where no one can hear your screams. For me, it was not showering for 3 weeks, forgetting to brush my teeth, staying in bed for days, lying in filth, not cleaning my room. Clothes all over the floor, eating too much, eating too little, sleeping too much, not sleeping at all. Being depressed was constantly dealing with the thought that I would be better off dead. It was several hospitalizations. It was feeling worthless. It was missing school for weeks. It was feeling as if I did not have any friends or that nobody loved me. It was feeling as if I did not matter to anyone. Being depressed was living in my own hell on earth.
Add school on top of that, and you get the icing on the top of a very sad and miserable cake. High school for me was not the best experience, something I have found a lot of teenagers relate to. High school for me was being a socially awkward, depressed, fat, queer Muslim brown girl, going to an athletics-focused school where the most popular kids were super fit, good-looking, rich white kids. I envied them. I wanted their lives. I wanted to be a pretty, popular athlete. Pretty and skinny, and sane that’s what I wanted to be so badly. Instead I was depressed and suicidal, fat and unattractive. I was a new immigrant and I had a thick accent I was very ashamed of. I took ESL classes. That heavily impacted my interactions with my fellow classmates. I was awkward and an outsider. I did not fit in. And, on top of that I had to deal with the anxiety of tests and exams.
Illustration: Sophie Freedman-Lawson
So how did I cope? I channeled all my energy into doing well in school. That was my source of self esteem. Many people with low self esteem latch on to an external source to validate themselves and for me that was school. I got 98s and even 100 in my math classes, and I got over 80s in all other subjects. It was my source of joy and pride. But it was also my downfall. In my final year I got a 78 in math. And that landed me in the emergency room of the local hospital. Why? Because I had placed all my self-worth on getting A’s throughout school, and when I got a B my entire world came crashing down around my ears. I had made my self esteem depend on my grades, my grades defined who I was. They gave me worth as a person . Getting good grades meant life was worth living despite the pain of depression. I wanted to die when I did not get the grades I hoped for. Life was not worth it anymore because I had proved to myself that I was a failure. I ended up getting hospitalized. I was suicidal and my single parent father could not cope with my mood swings anymore. So, I turned myself in to the emergency room of the hospital. My life was different after spending 3 weeks in a mental health facility. Throughout the course of my adolescence I have been hospitalized three times for my mental health. It was not fun. It was humiliating because it made me feel weak and pathetic and as if there was something seriously wrong with me. But, it always brought to my attention that I was not taking care of myself.
Fast-forward to college. And, in second year of university I was hospitalized yet again. This time my depression was worse. I hated university. I hated what I was studying. I still did not make any friends in class. I hated life in general. Life was bleak, boring, and depressing.
What is the answer to all this pain and suffering? How could I survive academia with depression? Discovering that was a very long and painful journey. But, I did come up with some solutions:
Studying something I liked: Academia is tough as it is, and it was even more horrible when I forced myself to study a subject I hated. Therefore, I experimented a lot and took a lot of different courses and ended up deciding on English literature as something that gave me joy and motivated me to go to class.
Finding what treatment method worked for me: In order to function in academia and finish my assignments I needed to be in a place where I had my depression under control. For me that was medication and therapy. Though I know that does not always work for everyone with depression, it did help me quite a bit to attend regular therapy sessions and see a psychiatrist and take medication.
Finding community: Finding a community where I belonged was very crucial to surviving depression. Community gave me a sense of belonging and acceptance. Community became a second family for me. Many people in university find community through student groups and clubs. That method did not work for me. So I decided to find community through my religion. I found a queer-inclusive mosque where the people became my second family. This significantly helped me cope with depression as it gave me a social outlet and something to look forward to every week.
Spending more time with friends: Due to depression I often felt like staying in bed all day and not seeing anyone. However it was very important to go out and see friends and get some socializing in. I am a very social person and spending time with my friends who I love kept my depression at bay.
Engaging more in hobbies: Spending more time doing activities I loved helped a lot. I love reading and writing, they bring me joy. Sometimes, due to being depressed, I found it hard to do things I love, however making the effort to incorporate my favourite hobbies into my life makes me feel a lot better.
Self Care: Self care can take many forms. For me it meant following a proper hygiene routine. Showering regularly, taking care of my body. Self care also meant treating myself to my favourite foods, taking myself out on dinner dates, buying myself my favourite books. And, spending more time with people I loved.
What advice would I give someone who is about to start university?
Pick a place where you will be happy. I picked my university because it was prestigious, not because I wanted to go there, and I regret that decision.
Try to study what you love or something that makes you happy. University is hard as it is. And, even harder when you have to force yourself to study something you hate.
Be proactive about your mental health and your needs. Try to see the accessibility services of your university as fast as you can if you have a mental health diagnosis. Try to make sure you can get extensions for your assignments if you need them. See a therapist if your school has one.
Join groups and clubs that interest you. Volunteer. These can be a great ways to build friendships and find a community and can also be a source of joy.
Go easy on yourself. You might get grades you are not proud of. You might not be able to take a full course load. You might have to drop courses. Whatever happens show yourself love and compassion and don’t be too hard on yourself.