I am Evan Ortiz, a 20 year old college student from Portland, Oregon. I am emailing you at NPR because I love the shows and stories I hear, and I am inspired to share my own story. In particular, my story about depression, college, and college health care. I do this because I feel a deep need to reach out to others suffering from mental illness and depression. I ask that you please hear my story, so that others might hear. I find comfort in the stories I hear on NPR, be it about mental health, car repair, scientific discoveries, philosophy, or lake woebegone, and I want to give back.
In 2010, I attended Ursinus college as a freshman, newly out of high school. Ursinus (i had never heard of it either) is located in "collegeville" PA, about 3000 miles from my home. I had never been to the east coast except for my campus visit, and had no idea what was in store for me. Not only about the experience of a freshman in college, but about a new culture, being away from home, not knowing anyone, and learning to live on my own.
In high school, I was diagnosed with depression, and general anxiety disorder. After a rough round of junior and senior years, I just barely graduated with much support from my teachers and counselors. I owe them my entire thanks for getting me through some very tough times. Anyways, in during senior year, when most students were getting ready to go to the two biggest state schools in the area, I was being prodded by my parents to apply to, well, any college. I chose Ursinus, the school nobody ever heard of, randomly from a college fair that I was taken to, and submitted a free application. The bonus was that I did not have to write the foreboding college essay, which in my depressed mind, was both insignificant to existence, and too incredibly onerous to overcome. Being one of the only students from the west coast to apply, having taken challenging courses and doing fairly well despite my troubles (again, thanks to the great staff at my high school) and being half Latino, I got a hefty scholarship and was all set to go to University.
I said goodbye to my family, and settled into the generic freshman dorm life, involving late night chats with strangers from other floors, easy Mac, and wearing pajamas during daylight hours. I attended my classes eager to be challenged and to finally be in the midst of intellectuals.
I had been coping pretty well with my depression up until this point, having gone through therapy the year before, and being put on a stable dose of Zoloft. I was turning in my homework, and maintaining my relationship with my long distance girlfriend from high school who attended university of Puget Sound. however, after about the first five weeks, I noticed the depression creeping back, as it so often does. Many little things piled up, which I had to noticed until it was a huge stack of tasks and obligations that no mortal could overcome. School assignments, social obligations, and the basics of living loomed over me, a juggernaut of "typical" college life stresses. This is what depression is. This is how it works. You wait and pray and hope it never returns, but it does. Even if the feeling is incredibly mild, it still triggers the all too familiar sense of losing control, of life being too hard to handle, of the world dropping you from its stability, and you are left to cope in the darkness, with nothing. You see, the fear of re-lapsing into a deeper depression is so terrifying, it can drive you pull the rip chord at the slightest trigger. You are willing to let go of everything; school, friends, getting out of bed, if it means getting out of the heralding darkness. Piles of disappointment and worry and obligation crush your soul beneath their weight, and you are left hopelessly without control, reaching for anything that might quell the fear, even if for a moment.
The worst thoughts about yourself manifest in your obligations and works. It is a trick, and a trap that leaves you hanging on the edge of a cliff, earth crumbling beneath your fingertips. It is here, at this point, that so many people turn to alcohol, and drugs, and physical harm, stimulation to try to escape. To feel themselves let go. To feel anything remotely human, because depression robs one's self of that humanity.
Luckily, I knew the warning signs. I knew I was in trouble, and had enough experience learning the hard way to know I needed help. But the unfortunate thing is, many people, including myself, with depression don't notice somethings wrong until it's too late, and everything has fallen apart in a dramatic nighttime revelation. You deny to yourself that anything is wrong, maybe because of the humanistic optimism in you, maybe as a way to cope, maybe as a way to escape and ignore the fear. You lie to yourself, and come up with excuses. Deep down you know the problem, but you fail to recognize it. Depression I'd funny in this way. It is also incredibly dangerous.
So, when I finally emailed the on campus wellness center, it took everything I had to fully admit I had a problem and needed help. I so much wanted my depression to be done with. I just wanted to ignore it, but It got to the point that I couldn't. Assignments weren't being handed in. Little things, as I said, at first, like postponing an essay, or not studying for a quiz, until they piled up, and I had quite a few academic warnings. I mentioned in my email to the wellness center that I was struggling with depression, and asked to see a counselor. I got an email three days later, saying that I needed to come in to fill out a form in order to be evaluated to see someone. I came in and filled a general health history form, with questions at the end like "are you sexually active?" And "are you feeling suicidal?". That last question confused me. I hadn't thought of killing myself. Maybe dying peacefully, but never suicide or anything like that. I knew I felt like dying, but I wanted to fight, and to live. I wondered if I should put down "yes" to speed up the process. I circled "no." In the comments section at the end, I explained I was having real trouble with depression and needed help. To me this should have been a red flag to anyone screening. I was told I would be contacted in two to three days. I left feeling optimistic, and ready to start over. Days turned into a wee, and then two.
I emailed back twice during this time, and finally was sent an email saying I would be able to see someone three or four weeks later.
I was hurt. I was mad. I was confused. I couldn't believe I had to wait this long to set up an appointment at this small school, and had to wait four weeks until I could see a health professional to have a first session in which I would spend half the time being to uncomfortable to tell the smallest of my problems. I thought an institution with such a large and "well-regaurded" Psychology and pre-med program, a school for enlightened though, would not have a wellness center that understood someone reaching out with a serious issue. This was a matter of life and death for me. Depression was going to creep back in those four weeks I had to wait. I knew it would. Was I supposed to stop my life for a month, and coast along with this burden that had already driven me to the point to overcome stigma to talk to a counselor? My grades suffered, I dropped classes, I wanted out of the school. Dorm life made me sick. Dorm food made me sick. I just wanted to feel alive again.
I could have so easily gone across the walkway in front of my dorm to the sophomore dorm, and I could have tried to find the answers to my life in the bottom of countless Natural Ice cans, or in the smoldering ends of joints and bong hits that were all to readily available, and let my life be dominated by these. I knew other people were hurting. I could see it and hear about it and witness it. The countless parties where frat boys passed out drunk, and drunken hookups and sexual assaults and alcohol poisonings ran rampant. All the while the school was still trying to figure out why so many coeds drank to the point of illness, and what to do with these out of control kids. Assaults, underage binge drinking, defacement of grounds, and disrupted schoolwork and study were all attributed to "kids will be kids" and similar denials. I feel officials at the school knew that taking away the alcohol would solve nothing. Other more dangerous vices or escapes would just take over. So they tollerated these activities.
I was worried, and decided to take up a complaint with the dean of students. I set up a meeting, and explained my disbelief of having to wait so long to get help. I couldn't believe a school trying to be so cutting age and progressive barely had the resources to take care of their students. I told all of this to the dean, and she assured me she was equally outraged, and that she would find me someone to talk to in the meantime. I felt better after that.
However, although the dean said she would follow up, I felt she never did, and although I was given a chance to talk to another school official with some counseling training, it was not enough for me. I needed a trained professional, and though I owe much thanks to the woman who heard me talk about my situation, I felt that this was temporary, and would not suffice. I knew other students needed more. With the statistics the way they are, with a majority of students dealing with mental illness, I was determined to help any way I could. It helped me be more confident in my struggles to know that I could be an advocate. So, when I arrived back at home after a long, disappointing semester, I told myself I would try to change this. I needed to.
But these motives subsided as the new term started, and I tried to focus on schoolwork. I was still slipping in my depression. Not much had changed motivationally now that I was in my second term. I still wanted out of that school. I still felt unheard. I was still not my true self, and still had so much to take on.
The assignments started piling up again. I received more academic warnings, and again tried to seek help. This time, I thought maybe my first attempt at an appointment was a rare occurrence. After all, if you are physically I'll, the center would have to get you in as soon as possible, right? Maybe they were usually faster about mental health appointments.
I put in another request, but was still told I would have to wait. The appointments wre booked until the end of the month. Even as I asked the wellness center receptionist if there were any way that I could see someone that day, and that it was important, she said "sorry" with a kind voice. But to me, that was still unacceptable.
My worries were confirmed, I was emailed back that I would have to wait about two weeks.
I was even more furious than before. I started sending emails to the wellness center, somewhat anonymously that contained articles and studies about how many college students needed mental health services, and the rising suicide rates, and the importance of a comprehensive wellness center. These emails recievd no responses.
I decided to take this to the highest authority I could think of. If the deans, the center, and the counselors wouldn't listen, I was going to take this to the top. The office of the president of Ursinus college. I walked to the top floor of the administration building, meeting surprised looks by office workers seeing a student in raggedy, typical college clothing walk into an administrative building. I asked for an appointment with the president. Surprisingly, I was answered by an enthusiastic secretary who was very helpful. The in-standing president (the colleges former president had just died, and the vice president was filling in) was out, but I would get a meeting with him the next day. I was very impressed, and excited. I couldn't believe it was this easy to see the president. I expected a wait about as long as the counseling center.
So the next day I came in, and was met by a kind older man who heard what I had to say. I explained the situation, and he was incredibly empathetic. He had no idea this was happening, and assured me it was a top priority of his. He thanked me, and I left, happy someone listened. However I had the feeling that I was again being told what I wanted to hear, in order to quiet me. I felt I still needed to do more.
A few days later, I left a message on the machine of the health and wellness center. I addressed the head of the center, and began to explain my situation, my concerns for fellow students, and my disappointment for how students were cared for. I admit it may have been stern, but I didn't care. At that, point, I needed them to know that I would not be ignored. I wanted to be heard, and wouldn't give up on this.
The next day I recieved an unprofessionally written email, in my opinion, demanding who I was and what I wanted. I was frightened by the tone of this email. I replied that I wished to have a meeting. The meeting with the center was not a new idea. I had expressed in my previous emails along with the articles that I wished to set up a meeting to discuss my concerns. Until this point, these requests went unanswered. A meeting was set up, and I gathered up information and statistics. As I got ready to leave for a meeting, I was told by a friend and the hillel house rabbi, a place i had found solace in, even though i was not Jewish, to take no prisoners. I was nervous and my hands sweat as I waited for the doctor to see me. After a long period of waiting, I was introduced to the doctor and head of counseling of the wellness center. I was escorted to an office where I met with the doctor and the counselor to discuss my "disturbing message." I felt uncomfortable, trapped, and outnumbered. I was asked why I was "stirring things up so much" and "making a lot of noise." I tried to keep my composure and explained what I wanted to say:
That mental health is an important issue.
That these waiting times were unacceptable for the college I was paying 52k a year to attend.
That students everywhere, even on campus were hurting.
I explaind about a friend I knew that cut her wrists two nights earlier, and had to go to the emergency room, because she felt there was no way out.
I conveyed my struggles.
I was met with aggressive and accusing questions. I broke, and I cried like a baby. That was the hardest I wept since I was a child.
My message was getting muddled by high tension and the CYA approach to confrontation. (cover your ass).
It got so heated, that I strongly cut the doctor off, and exclaimed "people are f***ing hurting out there, and not enough is being done."
Yelling erupted from all parties, and subsided quickly. The meeting had to be broken up, because a patient had to be seen by the doctor. He told me to wait until after he saw the patient.
I called up the president of the school, asking if he could come help me at the meeting. I was outnumbered, and crying still. He came and patted me on the back. I thanked him, and we both waited.
When the doctor returned, we met in his office, the president, the doctor and I.
The meeting had a different tone, now. The doctor was more professional in his tone, and we explained what happened. (In the first half of the meeting, I explained what I thought was wrong, and noted that the president and dean agreed with me. I said I could ask him to meet with the group if they wanted. It was a powerplay, and was met with taunts of "go ahead.")
I was glad I had back up. Again, the idle CYA chatter between the doctor and president started up, and it was agreed that maybe there was more that the wellness center could do, and if I wanted, I could call and discuss this more in three months, during the summer. The doctor explained "in fifteen years here, I have never had a single complaint. And now you come along with these issues. Watch what you say, because I am not ignorant. I have dealt with depression, but waiting times are waiting times." I asked if it was a budget or staff issue. He replied no, and that it was standard procedure. The meeting had to end, and I left. As I walked out, the doctor asked the president to stay. I said my thank you's and goodbyes. I couldn't help but get the feeling that the doctor was going to meet with the president without me to discuss me, and to write me off as someone with depression who is not thinking straight, and taking out frustrations on an innocent campus wellness center. I sighed, and left having done all I could.
I was proud that I stood up for this important issue. I had already made up my mind months before that I was leaving the school, but thought that just because I went through tough times, that didn't mean that others had to. I was hopeful, perhaps overly so, that things would change.
Though I never did have the motivation to call again that summer, I like to think I made a difference. I started a website for people with mental health, or life struggles called theburden.org. Resources were posted, and it was my way of trying to correct things.
The site is under construction right now, althogh I hope to get it back up soon.
I am now studying Music Therapy at Marylhurst University, and I am loving every minute of it. I am taking my health seriously, and still looking out for those I feel need help with their own struggles. Depression still creeps up from time to time, but I have the support and knowledge to recognize and act now.
Though I would never return to study at Ursinus, I made many good friends. It just wasn't a good place for me. Unfortunately, I hear from my friends that nothing has changed in regard to wellness, and that some of the campus staff are getting a little more ridiculous in their close-mindedness. But I guess change is slow. Slow, but imminent.
This story is my way of telling others out there that there are real issues on college campuses across the nation. My story is one of many. There is hope, and depression is nothing to go through alone. The world is so amazing. Things get so much better.
Thank you for hearing me. Thank you for taking the time.
Thank you so much.
Sometimes it takes unspeakably tragic events to bring the existence of a widespread problem into the national conversation. In the past decade, highly publicized rashes of suicides at NYU, UPenn, Tulane and Cornell, among others, have moved the discussion of mental health services on campus right to the forefront of the higher education discourse.
Thankfully, these are, of course, extreme cases of mental health challenges, but the shift in focus could benefit the massive numbers of students who enter college each year with some degree of a mental health condition. Between the ages of 13 and 18, approximately 20% of American adolescents will deal with some form of mental illness. Under this umbrella falls anything from minor depression or anxiety all the way to potentially more serious conditions like pediatric schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder.
In this piece, we will offer recommendations for dealing with depression/anxiety on your college application, but perhaps more importantly, we will share what mental health experts and current research says are important considerations for managing your illness on campus.
*Disclaimer: Mind you, we are college planning experts, not mental health experts—we are merely summarizing mental health considerations as related to college admissions and attendance. Your mental health provider may offer additional advice based on the specifics of your situation.
Impact on your high school career
For many, dealing with a mental health condition will negatively impact their high school career in some way, potentially impacting areas such as academic performance, school attendance, teacher relationships, and extracurricular involvement. There is ample statistical evidence to support this—students with social phobia are twice as likely to fail a grade as those without. Students with a depression diagnosis have been found to earn significantly lower grades than their similarly-abled peers.
Given the impact of mental illness on a teen’s academics, a significant number of high school seniors are faced with a difficult choice each year—do I reveal my condition on my college application? There is no blanket answer that will guide every applicant. Ultimately, the decision to reveal your condition is an entirely personal one.
Did your academic performance suffer?
Perhaps your mental health issues were managed successfully and never impacted your grades. If this is the case, we advise that there is no reason to reveal your condition on an application. You should, however, still check out our recommendations on how to check out a college’s mental health services (below).
If your academic performance did suffer as a result of your condition and you do choose to share your challenges with prospective colleges in an essay and/or interview, we recommend that you consider framing your experience in one of the following ways:
The “overcoming obstacles” angle
Overcoming challenges and citing evidence of personal growth can be a winning story arc. If a bout of depression during your sophomore year contributed toward failing grades but you received treatment and rebounded academically the following year, then revealing that journey may be extremely helpful to your admissions chances. Knowing that you faced a significant challenge in your life and successfully emerged from it speaks volumes about your resilience, maturity, and grit, traits that are greatly valued by admissions officers.
Weakness as strength
Another approach is highlighting the strength that you draw from what others call an “illness.” An associate of Abraham Lincoln said of our 16th president that the “melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” Yet, many historians feel that Lincoln’s lifelong depression sparked a great deal of his legendary wisdom, insight, and brilliant strategic thinking. Lincoln was hardly alone; many of the greatest, most creative minds throughout history were, at least in part, driven by mental conditions. Darwin, Michelangelo, and Einstein were all likely sufferers of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. If we were to list all of all the great writers, artists, comedians, actors, and directors who were influenced by depression and anxiety, this blog post would be longer than the 1,017 page novel, Bleak House, penned by Charles Dickens, who was himself a lifelong victim of severe depression.
The semantic shift
Cautious applicants might consider simply substituting the term “medical condition” for “mental illness.” After all, depression, anxiety, and the like are treatable medical conditions in the same vein as mono, kidney surgery, or any other condition that might disrupt one’s educational experience. Simply stating that you were afflicted by a “serious medical condition” which caused a temporary academic decline and led to you quitting the school newspaper and the baseball team will suffice.
Check out a college’s services ahead of time
In a recent survey of college students with a diagnosed mental health condition, 45% rated their respective college as being somewhere between supportive and very supportive. The other 55% felt that mental health care on campus was less than ideal. Factors that were rated as being most important by students included: access to a psychiatrist for medication management, a 24-hour crisis hotline, community connections to additional mental healthcare, and the school’s overall culture of understanding that college can be stress-inducing and that mental health is paramount.
It is essential that parents and students research the mental health services on campus ahead of time. Check out each prospective college’s counseling office online to get a sense of what is available to students. If a college does not offer long-term therapy on campus, then parents should take the reins and find a good private therapist located near campus who accepts their insurance. This should be done well in advance.
College Transitions bottom line: If you are going to discuss your depression, anxiety, or other mental condition in your application, do so in a strategic manner for the purpose of illuminating otherwise unexplained inconsistencies in your academic record. A well-conceived and well-delivered narrative about your struggles with mental illness can be beneficial to your admissions chances; a poorly crafted disclosure may have the opposite effect.
Of even greater importance is that you do your research on the mental health services offered at each of your prospective colleges—ensuring that the necessary supports at your disposal may be critical to your overall well-being as well as to your academic performance over the next four years.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).