Five years ago this spring, I thought about killing myself for the first time. It wasn’t dramatic—it just dawned on me that if I fell asleep and never woke up, I wouldn’t have to face another day. It was a comforting thought. I was a senior at the time, staring down the barrel of my thesis and life after graduation, and seriously clinically depressed. Five years later, I am finally getting my life back, and it seems the appropriate moment to say what I wish someone had said to me when I was still at Harvard.
What I needed to hear was this: Don’t be embarrassed. Talk to your friends, family, professors, tutors, resident dean. Tell them that you’ve lost interest in your life, and feel neither happiness nor sadness—you just feel numb. Tell them your brain feels fuzzy and you can’t concentrate. You might be managing to muddle through, with the same determination that got you into Harvard in the first place, but it’s alright to admit that you don’t have it all together. Most people don’t.
If you think you might be depressed, here is the other thing I needed to hear: Go get help. You have a serious medical condition, not a failure of willpower or character. You are in pain, both physical and psychic. So go get professional help.
Also, think about taking time off to take care of yourself. I once heard Harvard described as a treadmill—if you slow down you’ll fall off, and it’s hard to get back on. It might seem unthinkable to take a semester off (it was for me), but the irony is you end up falling off anyway. Get professional help. You deserve it, and it’s the only way you’re going to get better. When depression doesn’t kill you, it can make you stronger—but it may kill you.
I’m not saying it will be easy—it’s not—but you will get better eventually, and sooner if you are kind to yourself. I wasn’t, and I lost several years as a result. I counted down the days until graduation so I could slink off and hide, and I literally fled the country. I lost touch with all of my friends, and with myself. I eventually had to take a semester off from life to deal with it. Nobody should have to go through that. If this sounds like you, go get help. If this sounds like someone you know, encourage that person to seek treatment.
Every so often there is an upwelling of support for students with mental health issues, and calls for reform, including a petition a few years ago from some of my classmates for a mental health fund and student activism that produced changes to University Health Services policies. This usually happens after someone comes forward to share their story, or when the community must confront another student suicide. So I am sharing my story, if only to remind students struggling with mental health issues that they are not alone, and should not be embarrassed.
If you are an alumnus with a similar experience, I would love to hear from you—let’s revive the conversation, and find ways to be more supportive as a community. I expect those who have shared my experience would say that Harvard’s resources could be better, even with the recent improvements. And if this resonated with you, please go get help. Everyone should make it to their five year reunion.
Courtney L. Blair ’10 lives in Washington, DC.