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Torres: On living with a mental illness as a Northwestern student

Elizabeth Torres, Op-Ed Contributor

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I’m currently in my last quarter at Northwestern. These last four years have been both tumultuous and amazing: I’ve made lifelong friendships, invested my time in things I’m passionate about and grown as a human being. But there is one thing that has always kept me from having a truly fulfilling college experience: my depression. It took me a very long time to come to terms with it, and it didn’t just suddenly appear when I came to NU — I’ve been living with it for a very long time. Now I’m more open about it to my friends, and they’ve been extremely supportive, especially my closest friends who stood by my side when I was suicidal. My depression comes with guilt and shame. I used to slip into these episodes for weeks at a time and not know how to snap out of them. I missed meetings and work, lost weight and failed exams.

I remember sitting with my Weinberg adviser and being asked what I could change and do better to pass my classes. This was difficult for me to answer. On the one hand, I was incredibly ambitious just like my peers and I wanted to succeed. On the other, I felt that I was to blame for my failure, and I didn’t know how to fix myself. I went to Counseling and Psychological Services four times in three years, but the thing no one tells you about seeking treatment is that it takes time, it takes money and — if you don’t have a strong support system — it’s draining. Culturally, I come from a place that doesn’t understand mental illness; it’s something I’ve been taught to push through. For most of my life, that’s what I did, but it came at a price.

By Winter Quarter of my junior year, I was still pre-med, and I hit the lowest point of my entire life. I had constant suicidal thoughts. I didn’t want to exist anymore. I stopped eating. I couldn’t get out of bed. I would have an anxiety attack whenever I tried to leave my house. I remember going to a chapter meeting for my sorority, locking myself in the bathroom five minutes after I got there and crying. In one of my classes, when I had to present a piece I’d written, I had an anxiety attack in front of my entire class. I felt like people could tell something was wrong with me, and that made me ashamed of myself. I didn’t want anyone to see me. I didn’t want them to think I was weak or crazy.

I’m fortunate to have met people at NU who love me despite my illness and who take time out of their busy lives to check in on me and get me help when I need it. I’m lucky I have a mother who puts my happiness above everything else, coming to Evanston to take care of me even though she couldn’t understand what was happening to me.

I’ve been in therapy for nine months, and while therapy has helped tremendously with unpacking my past trauma, I also had to realize this quarter that sometimes I get severely depressed for absolutely no reason. It was at this point that my therapist suggested I try medication to supplement therapy. Medication was always a last resort for me — being prescribed it was hard because I didn’t want to believe that I was sick. I couldn’t control sickness, and that lack of control made me feel broken. But I decided to go on sertraline because I knew I wouldn’t make it to graduation if I couldn’t get a handle on my depression. After having spent six weeks on it, my friends and professors can see a difference. And, more importantly, I feel like myself again.

Everyone’s experience with mental illness varies, but I wish someone would’ve told me that it isn’t my fault, I can get better and I shouldn’t be ashamed. If you’re dealing with mental illness, consider taking medical leave (although I know it’s not feasible for a lot of folks). My one regret at NU is that I was too stubborn to take a quarter off to get help. Had I sought treatment sooner, I think I wouldn’t have missed out on so many opportunities and chances to connect with people.

My decision not to take care of myself was driven by fear. I felt pressured to work myself to exhaustion to fit in with the culture at NU. I’m also a low-income, first-generation college student, and I felt that I had to live up to an expectation from my family to graduate on time and strive for perfection. I managed to get through four years without significant damage to my academic career, but my mental health was a different story. As an outgoing senior, I urge students to prioritize their mental health. Productivity culture here can guilt you into not seeking treatment, but remember that you should be thriving instead of just surviving.

Elizabeth Torres is a Weinberg senior. She can be contacted at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.