College can be frustrating for anyone, but when you live with a mental health condition it sometimes feels like you’ll never make it to graduation. Your college career may not look like your peers’ and it may take you more than four years, but when you finally get that priceless piece of paper you will look back in awe of all you went through to earn your degree with pride. In the face of a global pandemic that has changed education and the ways in which we learn, I’d like to offer fours ways to earn your degree while living with a mental health diagnosis:
Plan, Plan, Plan. Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” When it comes to managing a mental health diagnosis and attending college, I couldn’t agree more. I didn’t learn to plan out every little detail of my schedule until I was a working adult enrolled in online classes, and managing bipolar. I feel as though if I had learned this as soon as I was diagnosed, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to finish. I have found that it is important to manage every assignment and appointment. From that dreaded English paper to your 4 o’clock tele-health session with your therapist. I’ve learned to use different organizational tools to plan such as planners, note cards, sticky notes and of course, my beloved iPhone. Find your magic tools and get to planning! Stay at least a week ahead.
Take Advantage of the Resources at Your Institution. I was away at school for a few years before I began to take advantage of the resources available to me such as therapy and other mental health services. I struggled for a while before asking for help. Partly due to my pride and partly due to just plain ignorance, I had no idea that there were so many opportunities to get help. They vary by institution, but nowadays most campuses have some type of mental health services and or resources for students. If you’re like I was and find it challenging to ask for help, think of how much more time and energy you’ll have to when your issues are being addressed and not looming over you. Think of how it will feel focus on your courses, personal projects and passions instead of focusing on how you feel stuck and unable to move forward.
Communicate with Your Instructors. Contrary to popular opinion, your college professors are there for you. I know in high school and in other parts of society it is taught that your professors don’t care if you succeed. News flash: they do! That’s why it is important to build rapport with them and let them know what’s going on with you. They can’t help you if they don’t know what you’re dealing with. At some colleges, this is as easy as having your diagnosis documented or simply sending an e-mail at the beginning of the semester letting your professors know ahead of time while at other schools you have to be registered with some type of disability services office or other resource. It can be overwhelming, but simply communicating with your teachers goes a long way when you’re mid-semester and your symptoms arise.
Stay the Course, but Remain Realistic. There were so many times that I wanted to quit and to be honest, there were times when I did give up, but something always pulled me back. I believe this something was my desire to complete what I had started and ultimately accomplish what I knew in my heart of hearts I could do. At times, I felt like taking on a full course load in order to speed up the process, but I had to be realistic and know that too much on my plate would not be beneficial mentally or academically. In staying the course, I learned to slow down and revel in small victories, such as successfully completing one or two courses per semester. Over time this built my confidence in my ability to finish. This pace was perfect for me and my lifestyle. I was on a realistic path to completing my degree and it worked!
You have a mental illness; you are not your mental illness. This was one of the first lessons I had to learn on my journey to learning to live with my mental illness. I was diagnosed with a mood disorder, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, anxiety, and depression! This was after I attempted to take my life at only sixteen. Think about that! It took an attempt to take my life to figure out I had a mental illness! I never knew what was wrong, but I knew something wasn’t right. What eight-year-old wants to start self-harm. How could I have all these things and never know? How could I have all these illnesses and nobody ever notices? These were questions I first asked myself after I was diagnosed. I knew they existed but being a young black man enduring the stigma around mental illness in the black community, I believed it wasnʼt a “black people thing”. Seriously, I was scared. In my mind, my life was supposed to be over, but now I have to learn to live with my illness. I never wanted to take my life. I just wanted the pain and sadness to end. That same pain and sadness stemmed from an illness no one knew I had for sixteen years!
As time went on everything went back to normal, well at least for everyone else. I saw a therapist. This was another thing I thought black people didnʼt do. It made it feel like there was something really wrong with me. As I look back now, I feel so bad because I was so stubborn! I was more ashamed of needing help than driven to get help.
There are two ways to learn in life. The smart learn by example, and the stubborn learn from experience! As I got older, I accepted it, but still ignored it. Things became unbearable again, but I promised I would never try to take my life again. Iʼd rather break down and keep a fake smile than hurt the ones I love! The last time we talked about my mental illness was during the time I was first diagnosed, so it made me feel like they didnʼt want to talk about it.
I prayed but only to be better. Then I came across spirituality. That was the best thing that happened to me! It taught me to start loving myself and gave me a sense of understanding. Things that were so simple, but never taught anywhere. Meditation is a huge practice within spirituality, and I gave it a shot. The clarity I got from discovering that I am who I am and not what I have. I learned that what I needed to pray for was the guidance to help solve my problems instead of wanting them to be solved out of thin air. Faith without works is pointless, after all. Not only did I gain the confidence to begin my healing process, but I was able to open up about it. I reminded myself, “Youʼre a black king, nothing has ever or ever will keep you down!” Itʼs okay to go through the motions, but donʼt become the emotion. Experience it and let it pass”. The wonders this did for me. When I felt my depression kick in now I would say to myself, “Itʼs okay, you know what this is, let it do itʼs thing, but donʼt let it take over. Remember youʼre in control. This illness is just something you have”!
I felt in control for the first time in my life! Itʼs funny because when you heal God will send you others to help heal. I feel like this is my calling! Making others aware of mental illness and helping others heal and find guidance through my experience, so they wonʼt have to go through the same painful trials I had to. I want to reach people before itʼs too late! I understand that everything I’ve been through was necessary so I would have the knowledge to help others. Wisdom is healed pain. Kings & Queens, I encourage you to reclaim your royal self! Remember your worth and that you can conquer all. Be true and most importantly be you! Think of it as a daily practice. Each day you put in work, and you gradually get better! Some days will be harder than others, but those are the practices that sharpen your skills the most. Honestly, I wish I started sooner, but I trust the Lord’s timing. Six months of dedicated work can put you years ahead! The crown never falls, but sometime it will tilt. Just readjust and keep ruling your life, Kings & Queens!
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