You eat, but you aren’t able to taste your food. You try to write your paper, or work on your p-set, but all you can do is think to yourself, “What is the point?” You try to get out of bed in the morning, but you just can’t escape its almost magnetic hold over you.
So you sleep. And you sleep. And you sleep. Sleep becomes your drug of choice, and you abuse it constantly. Your old hobbies and passions no longer have the same appeal. None of them match the sense of security you feel when you’re wrapped up tight in your bed sheets. You sleep to escape the thoughts, the fear, the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and dread that seems to seep from your pores.
But when you leave the house, you keep a smile spread on your face, because you know your friends won’t understand. You feel isolated, alone, like there is no one in the world who can possibly understand the darkness. God, you wish and you pray that the pain can go away.
But it doesn’t. It gets worse, and worse, and worse. And then you think to yourself: Should I end it all? Eventually, that’s all that you can think about, that question. And more questions follow. What does it mean to be alive? Why are you here? What’s the point? You drown in these thoughts—you’re drowning, and you feel like no one is there to save you.
This year, our campus has experienced a series of conversations about the issue of mental health in our community. It’s difficult for me to express how thankful I am for these conversations. Harvard can be a wonderful place, but as we all know, it can also be a pressure cooker. For many of us, it was our dream for our entire lives to go to school here, which is why the reality of the mental health situation on this campus can be so startling. This place can be so cold, so isolating. People are so busy all the time that it is easy to feel alone. We have had almost one suicide every year, and the anxiety on this bustling campus is almost palpable. I love Harvard, but the administration and student leadership must continue to improve the mental health condition on this campus.
As part of this process, I believe it is necessary for us to come together, as a campus, to talk about the times when we felt hopeless, when we felt lost. For the sake of those of us living every day in silence and suffering, it is vital for Harvard’s student body to come together and say: You Are Not Alone.
Telling these stories can be difficult. In a place where prestige and face mean so much, the social cost of opening up to people that you don’t know seems like it would be crippling.
I fear the stigma surrounding mental health. I am more than my depression, yet I am afraid that for some people, my mental health condition will be all they associate with my name. But I am certain that our campus desperately needs people to come forward and talk about their mental health. Which is why I will tell you my story.
This past May, John Lee, a friend from back home, committed suicide. My third friend to die in four years, he and I knew each other since we were babies, grew up together, and co-captained our school’s Academic Bowl Team. Our friendship had its ups and downs, as all real friendships do, and right before I left for college we had a falling out, something that I will regret for the rest of my life.
For months after John Lee’s suicide, I was numb. During this time period, I was able to go about my daily life as usual. Between final exams, an intense summer job, and the start of the next semester, I never took the time to process his death. Last semester, likely as a means to avoid coming to terms with the loss of my friend, I filled every minute and every second with school and extracurricular activities. I barely slept, rarely ate, and was always on my feet. I felt that as long as I stayed busy, I could outrun the memories and thoughts that threatened to drag me down into darkness.
By the middle of the semester, though, it proved too much. Like a house built upon sand, my mental health status remained unstable as long as I avoided coming to terms with the death of my friend. Depression hit me like a truckload of bricks, knocking me off my feet and hitting me while I was down again, and again. By never taking the proper time to come to terms with John Lee’s death or the death of my other two friends, I allowed what should have been a natural process of grief to transform into an overwhelming state of depression. I began to question the point of school, of my extracurriculars, even of my own life. My attempts in the first two paragraphs of this article to convey the depths of my emotions are, to be frank, woefully insufficient. Suffice it to say, this was a dark time for me.
My experiences with depression made it necessary for me to take time off. My schoolwork no longer felt relevant, as I was trying my best to stay afloat in a time when just eating and sleeping regularly felt like too much to handle. Ultimately, I decided that the only way for me to overcome the overwhelmingly negative emotions that were consuming my life was to attempt to direct them into a positive outlet. I’ve traveled around, speaking to audiences about my history with mental health, and worked with the public defender’s office in Birmingham, Alabama, where I have seen first hand the ravaging effects of mental health conditions on our nation’s low-income communities. In particular, I’ve seen yet again that many people use their drug or substance of choice as their last refuge, something that occurs on this campus as well.
My time off in Alabama has been transformative. It has allowed me to gain new perspectives on mental health in our society, and, thankfully, to take positive steps in coming to terms with my own demons.
Why did I write this article? It is my sincere and honest belief that we will all encounter a situation in our lives that pushes us into an existential chasm, forcing us to crawl up on our hands and knees to attempt to rediscover the light. I believe this is a basic aspect of humanity, that it is natural. What I fear, however, is that there are some people who feel alone in their struggle. Who feel like there is no hope.
The power of storytelling is tremendous. It brings us together to reflect on our common humanity, something that is easy to forget in an era of smartphones and social media echo chambers. I hope that the story of my experience with depression, and how I almost convinced myself that I was alone—that my life was meaningless—will help people feel comfortable talking about their own experiences. Because the truth is, we are not alone in our mental health struggle, no matter what depression tells us. We are here for each other, we care, and we will listen.
William F. Morris IV ’17-’18 is taking a year off to intern in a public defender's office and advocate for mental health awareness.
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