Navigating mental health in college can be scary.
For many students, it might be the first time they are really forced to think about their mental health. Of course, everyone faces different challenges throughout their lives. But the start of college can be a huge change for a lot of students - you might be living on your own for the first time, far away from your family and in a new city, taking new classes, meeting friends and figuring out what clubs you want to join and what you’ll major in and even where you’ll eat and who you’ll eat with. It’s a transition regardless of your background or experiences.
For me, it was a very challenging transition, and I’ll share some of my story as it might resonate with others. In general, I had a really positive high school experience; I went to a small Catholic high school where everyone knew who I was and I knew everyone. By the time my senior year rolled around, I had leadership positions in sports and activities that I loved, I had a solid group of friends, and I had done really well academically. When I got to Penn, I was overwhelmed and homesick. I didn’t know my professors or the people on my hall, I was struggling in my classes for maybe the first time in my life, and I was realizing that maybe I wasn’t so great with change after all. Part of navigating these changes is being patient with yourself and taking time to adjust and get more comfortable, but many students, beyond riding it out, could benefit from asking others for the help that you need.
Learning to ask for help when you need it can be really tough, but Penn students make a point of opening up and talking about mental health. It’s through others being vulnerable with me that I felt comfortable sharing what I was struggling with. In fact, at the end of my freshman year, I remember sitting in a friend’s dorm room and confiding in her how anxious and lost I felt when she told me about her experience with CAPs and therapy and suggested I go, offering to walk me there or help me through it. I am so grateful to this friend for giving me the push I needed and making this step seem less intimidating to me.
CAPS, Counseling and Psychological Services, is Penn’s mental health resource, free for students and offering therapy, group programs, and other wellness services. I began going to CAPS consistently throughout my sophomore year, first weekly, and then biweekly. It began with a fifteen-minute phone consultation, and then I went in and met with someone in person. I tried a couple therapists before I found one I really connected with, and that is completely okay. As mental health awareness has increased, Penn has done a lot in the last few years to expand CAPs and the number of therapists and available appointments, as well as placing counselors around campus for drop-in “Let’s Talk” sessions. Last summer, dealing with the uncertainty of COVID and going through a breakup, I decided to go back to CAPs after taking a break from it my junior year. This time, as I spoke with a counselor, she recommended that since I was looking for longer term care, that I go through CAPs’ referral process. They helped me find someone based in Philadelphia who fit my health insurance and was suited to what I was looking for, and I now meet with my therapist on a weekly basis.
Therapy is one of the ways to take care of yourself, but there are a lot of other important things you can do for yourself. I think this is part of the beauty of college: learning who you are, what you value, and what you need in order to prioritize your mental health. The four years of college are a really challenging time, but they allow for so much growth and really getting to know yourself. I never knew before just how much I needed consistent sleep, alone time, and frequent exercise. Getting off campus and into Philadelphia also helps me to feel refreshed and gain a bigger perspective. My college experience definitely has had its ups and downs, but it’s helped me to learn what works for me. Thinking about my upcoming transition out of college and into “the real world,” I feel confident that I’m equipped with the resources that I need to navigate a new season of life.