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Destigmatizing Depression

At some point in my first semester at Harvard, during that first trial-run of freshman fall, I made my friends write down the reasons I should go on living. I used to buy Hi-Chews from H mart, and each one I ate was a last reserve against the thought of dying. Each row of candy kept me breathing. When it was finished, at least I’d made it a minute further into life.

My depression centered on how unbearable I had found solitude to be. I could not live with myself, so toward the end I always had a friend with me physically or on the line. I knew they cared, as deeply as anyone can care, but they felt so far away. I felt so far away.

I write this because I want to normalize depression. I want depression, anxiety, or any mental health condition, to be destigmatized. I wouldn’t even refer to these as mental illnesses, because I think everyone is on a spectrum of vulnerability to these things, especially at this age. A considerable portion of the population is affected — especially at Harvard. I think that if we stopped other-ing mental health struggles as illnesses, we would care more about each other. All throughout my teenage years, I was so afraid of seeing myself as struggling that I resisted getting help. I did not believe that I could be categorized as mentally ill.

I hope every person who goes through some kind of mental health difficulty has the support of someone around them and at least has or knows the possibility of seeking help. It is incredibly difficult here to care about those around you. Everyone slips into apathy. I am guilty of it. To stay alive, I realized you had to be selfish enough to take care of yourself, or selfless enough to live for the people you knew — whichever way of thinking works for you.

It is awful also to be thinking of what your depression will cost you in your future while you are still in the deep rut of it. Much of the ordeal of a mental health leave is how to explain yourself to people, particularly if you live in East Asia, a region that is guilty of mental health stigmatization. My grandmother and many of my family friends still believe that I took a term off only to intern. Of course, most people did not believe this was all there was to the story. The concept of a gap year or gap term was foreign to them, especially since I took one in the middle of a semester.

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My parents and I got into many arguments as to what to tell people. I wanted to tell the truth. To think of all the ways I had to go about covering my depression made me depressed. My family would worry about how I was ever going to get a corporate or finance job if people knew: “Why do you refuse our protection?”

To that I willed myself to be truthful, because I don’t care. I hope it will remain this way. I hope I will not regret that I have not kept this a secret.

Sometimes, to that, or to nothing in particular, I wanted to go out and get down on all fours and scream into the grass. I want to do what the cold stars looking on see animals do on the earth. But then as the months went by, without really even knowing how, the days got lighter; my body became lighter on my mind. Perhaps it was the procedures and therapies — never mind if they were placebos. Life was no longer unbearable for no reason. Suddenly I believed in joy again.

What I am grateful for is that, because of my depression, I do not take normalcy for granted. When I came back to complete freshman fall, the sight of Harvard Yard did not kill me. It did not shock or anger me or sweep a melancholy so deep it cut, as I’d feared. I felt calm. This year, I felt as though I loved my solitude again, at least most of the time. Sometimes the loneliness comes and swallows me whole. But most of the time, when I pass the pho restaurant in Chinatown where I’d sat with my despair a little over a year ago, I am half-light. I am completely in my being.

Moments like that — moments of normalcy — they begin to constitute most of your life, in light of the before. You are so glad for this earth. You feel dumb in your apathy and your incredible luck.

Letitia C. Chan ’22, a Crimson magazine writer and inactive Editorial editor, lives in Canaday Hall.

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