The Spectrum: Navigating mental health beyond Northwestern

Carson Brown, Op-Ed Contributor

This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

This is my experience with mental health and mental illness on this campus. I want to provide a content warning for mental illness at the start because this article deals with all ways it manifests in the lives of Northwestern students.

I came to NU with only a vague understanding of trichotillomania. Commonly called trich, it’s an anxiety disorder related to impulse control. Basically, when I’m stressed or anxious, it manifests in my lifting my hand and plucking a single hair from my head. Repeatedly. Often without noticing.

It has to do with the fact that I live with anxiety around everything. Most people have anxiety around certain things, but anxiety disorders heighten this awareness. It eclipses most other emotions and can be difficult to see past. During my first quarter on campus, I was pulling my hair out so often that I would have to sweep entire piles of discarded hair off my desk.

It was alarming, but something I was familiar with. Being diagnosed with trich is pretty easy because it’s an oddly specific habit. The problem is that once you get the diagnosis, it’s easy to assume that’s all you have. Depression and attention deficit disorder are harder to pin down because they manifest in so many ways. I think people with trich often neglect to consider that other things are going on at the same time because they get caught up in this one diagnosis. In reality, if you have one, you’re much more likely to have more than one. My friends know I have trich, but many people see me as a very happy person. Despite coming to terms with trich and everything that comes along with it, I find it difficult to mention more common things like depression to my friends because it is in such conflict with the identity the world handed to me.

Sophomore year, I went to Counseling and Psychological Services because I felt so overwhelmed. They referred me out and I ended up in the beautiful sky-rise office of an anxiety specialist in Chicago. I loved her. She helped me find concrete solutions and goals to deal with my trich and the underlying anxiety. I felt myself improving, but when we got the bill, my family said I had to stop going and the instability returned. I went home that summer unsure of what would happen next.

My junior year, everything came to a head. I started out the year studying abroad and got to push away most of my mental health problems. Being away from campus in a place I loved was refreshing and the adventure I needed. Returning in the winter, depression slammed back into my body. It was everywhere and I didn’t know where to turn. CAPS wasn’t helping, I couldn’t afford to go back to Chicago, and the quarter system was thoroughly overwhelming. I barely had time to think, much less self-reflect. Near the end of Spring Quarter, a giant assignment for my journalism major was due the next morning and I hadn’t started it. I spent weeks before the deadline staring at a blank document, unable to make meaningful progress. I’d stay up until 3 a.m., doing nothing, letting my computer watch me sit. Anxiety kept me up, but everything else collided so I couldn’t do the work.

I ended up emailing my professor. Passionate about her subject, she’s always smiling and continues to be one of the people I look up to most. She also ran a demanding classroom, almost constant deadlines piling on one after the other. I sent her the most honest email I’ve ever sent a professor: I was drowning. Her response was to put the assignment out of my mind and see her before class. She pulled me into her office that morning and looked me in my eyes. I felt vulnerable and incompetent. She listened to my story and recommended I go to Urban Balance. UB describes itself as “insurance-friendly,” and patients pay $20 per session. With an office in Evanston, they seemed almost too good to be true and I was shocked that I’d never heard of the resource. Now I see my therapist at Urban Balance every Tuesday night. She is kind and funny and she always shows me my options, letting me find solutions on my own.

That professor is one of the many faculty and staff members at NU who work outside the established system to get students the care they need. If I hadn’t been enrolled in her class, I have no clue what my life would look like.

I’m a senior now, with six weeks left before winter break and my journalism residency. I always feel better away from campus but, in the meantime, I feel all the old haunts returning: Excessive apathy, trouble maintaining friendships, trouble maintaining my sense of self, stunning anxiety around the little things, avoiding the big things. My Tuesday nights bring me back to center, but I know I need more.

NU has a serious problem addressing mental health. That is no surprise to anyone anymore. What is jarring is how many people have been impacted by NU’s failures on this front. Policy shifts never seem to net positive. NU opens unlimited sessions at CAPS, but then closes counseling at the Women’s Center. Somewhere at the intersection of a terrible reputation, hidden resources and toxic culture, too many students aren’t getting the help they should. Everyone’s path to obtain or maintain mental health is different, so don’t let a lack of a diagnosis keep you from talking to someone. I know how difficult it is, and I know the University too often fails to make it easier, but reach out. Take care of yourself and others.

Carson Brown is a Medill senior. She can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected] Views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of the Daily Northwestern.