I didn’t expect to fall apart so quickly.
After transferring to University of California Berkeley in the midst of a pandemic, I assumed I was resilient. But the hard truth hit me faster than a car on a California freeway when I practically lost my mind my senior year. Before this, in 2019, I lost my grandfather to dementia, and months after, suddenly had to navigate a pandemic that could have also taken my grandmother. For a bit, I held my head high, resolved I could ignore my anxiety as I had before.
But the moment I thought I found a ghost of a lump on my forehead, my mental fortitude, as if made out of cardboard, crumpled. I worried for a week to the point that I physically could not get out of bed to go to class. I cried myself dry. After the tears stopped, I eventually came to the conclusion I finally needed: I’m so sick of living like this, and it was high time I addressed it.
My only options, I believed, were either flat-out withdrawing from school, seeking help, or more drastically, doing something that would have undoubtedly broken many people’s hearts. I wanted the first option so badly, and I gave the third a lot of thought. Despite that, I begrudgingly chose help after a push from my family.
After one visit to UC Berkeley’s health center, where I saw a doctor who felt my forehead and explained that the “lump” was actually normal, I scheduled a call with a mental health counselor on campus. I had an appointment the next morning and wandered around the roof of my apartment building during my 40-minute phone call. The counselor told me the steps I needed to take to find a therapist who accepted my school-provided insurance — which she said made finding help a lot easier — and even provided me with the contact information for some providers, along with a template for what to tell them. I had a therapist a week later. In a way, getting help was easy.
Now that I have been seeing a therapist for half a year, I am glad to say that my many anxieties are much more manageable.
But I have to wonder — where would I be now if I had faced even one roadblock in the steps to getting that help? Would I still be scratching my head until it stung to feel for that tiny lump? Would I have walked across the stage at commencement and been able to hug my lecturers? Heck, would I even be alive right now?
I realize now I was lucky. My experience isn’t universal. Time and time again, I hear nightmarish anecdotes from fellow students about their experiences with college-affiliated mental health counseling — whether it was with counselors who seemed too overworked to care, offered little advice or completely invalidated their emotions. In one case, a friend sought counseling for assignment-induced anxiety attacks, only to be told she simply needed to study harder to bring her confidence up. And that is if students can even get to a counselor, as scheduled appointments can be weeks away.
Even now, UC Berkeley’s mental health resources are in no way perfect. But at the very least, it worked the way it was meant to for one student. I understand this is a low bar.
Colleges need to make seeking help both accessible and less daunting. Funding should go toward hiring enough counselors to not only ensure students are not stuck on a mental battlefield for weeks, but also to prevent overworking counselors to the point that they cannot help a student to the best of their ability.
Mental health crises also need to be addressed with the right resources. For instance, Cal State Long Beach is rolling out a plan that includes having mental health professionals respond to such crises rather than the police.
I also found that when counselors take little steps to show empathy, no matter how overworked they are, students feel seen and heard. Even when I canceled an appointment I made before my episode, a counselor quickly reached out asking if I’d like to reschedule. The professionals I saw also never brushed off my anxieties. Instead, when I brought up academic-related fears to a campus counselor, she advised me that my health ultimately mattered more than my grades, even if that felt hard to believe in a campus culture like UC Berkeley’s.
College students have experienced more issues during the pandemic, which compounded problems that many students were dealing with before, and brought them to a boiling point where many of them just cannot afford to fall through the cracks.
I am grateful and consider myself lucky to be an example of when things do go right. This is not to say that I am a remarkable success story exemplary of my school, though. If anything, I should be the standard.
If I hadn’t had the experience I did, then I wouldn’t have been able to hear the University of California motto at graduation that summed up my yearslong mental health journey: Fiat Lux — Let there be light.
I just hope others like me will feel that light too.
Natalie Lu is a recent graduate from UC Berkeley and a member of EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.
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