No one wants to talk about mental health. The weight of the stigma surrounding the issue is so heavy that I started this post 5 months ago and am just now comfortable with sharing it. A deep respect for the lives lost and lives affected by these issues caused me great initial hesitation in putting my story out there. But I know it’s time to share this. For me. For you. For someone.
I think one of the most empowering things in life is being able to own your whole story. Admitting that we are all flawed beings who have done embarrassing, regretful, and downright shameful things in our pasts can be a tough pill to swallow. But I have found it to be an important exercise in acceptance that enables productive growth. That being said, here is the only story I know how to tell.
College is supposed to be the best time of your life. That’s what they tell you. You’re supposed to have fun. You’re supposed to be happy. You’re supposed to find yourself.
What they don’t tell you nearly enough is that it’s ok to not be happy all the time. That you might first lose yourself entirely before you find anything truly valuable. That there might be good days and enjoyable experiences but that a deeper sense of fulfillment and meaning can still be lacking.
I honestly consider myself lucky to have survived those four years. Yet I know that some of our best and brightest are no longer here to say the same.
My alma mater is in the midst of an epidemic, losing seven students in the last two years to suicide. This is a problem that cannot be ignored. We need to provide proper mental health support and start being more realistic about our expectations for happiness and success before we keep losing our children, our teammates, our loved ones. Each of these losses is a tragedy, and the fact that the student athlete population has been continually devastated hits home for me.
I recently wrote about the loss of my teammate Owen Thomas and the enormous impact he had on my life, my personality, and my outlook. In the last two years, the Penn Athletics community has lost two other young individuals to suicide in Madison Holleran and Timothy Hamlett. I didn’t have the chance to know these two during my time at Penn, but have many friends who were teammates of theirs, and who have repeatedly commemorated these beautiful souls in glowing fashion since their passings. I just wish I could be reading about them as the leaders in their communities that they had the potential to be, and not as part of this tragic story that continues to unfold across our campus and our nation.
Not having known them personally, I can’t help but find it wholly insincere to comment specifically on the stories of Tim and Madison. Both of the articles I have linked above feature interviews with friends and family that paint vivid pictures of these lives lost. While reading these profiles, I couldn’t help but think back to my own college experience and the challenges I faced and those that I witnessed in individuals around me. I share my story in hopes of opening a more honest dialogue about mental health and setting realistic expectations for our youth.
In high school it was easy. The name of the game was achievement, and for one reason or another I got really good at playing along. I focused my energies and worked hard and success seemed to follow. I got good grades, filled my schedule with clubs and activities and responsibilities, and was lucky enough to fall in love with a sport and a position that I could apply a unique skillset to.
I first tried to kick a football toward the end of 9th grade, and just three years later I was heading to Penn with a chance to walk on and continue my playing days. I worked my ass off in those three years to develop from a truly awful to eventually reliable kicker, and the rapid progression of this dream was exhilarating.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan. Boy studies hard. Boy wins awards. Boy goes to dream school to play dream sport. Happily ever after…and then freshman year hit me.
The problem I struggled with freshman year and that was touched on in the recent piece about Madison is that I didn’t think it was OK to not be OK. Disappointments piled up quickly, and because I was so focused on the need to achieve, I was totally unprepared to deal with falling short of expectations. Convinced that high letter grades were the mark of a successful and worthwhile academic experience, getting a D in Physics first semester sent me into a panic. I was confused and bitter. The rest of my grades were fine, but I was certain this single mark would irreparably brand me a failure.
At that point in my life, my sense of identity was so strongly associated with the ability to achieve at a high level that I didn’t really know what to do with myself. School had programmed me to be more high functioning machine than free thinking human being, and I was blindly competing in a high speed race to the top.
Second semester continued to pack the punches and send me further into a downward spiral. I stressed daily about staying afloat in the next level of Physics, straining myself to pull a C+ and breathe a huge sigh of relief at the moderate improvement. Some realities of love and loss hit me for the first time while living away from home, with my first heartbreak and the passing of my grandfather coinciding that spring. These weren’t necessarily extraordinary circumstances, but rather painful facts of life that we all share and that I was unable to process at the time.
I remember being able to skip one practice for my grandfather’s funeral and then being thrust right back into the race. I struggled to balance the pain of this loss with the need to resume my responsibilities at school. I was in such a hectic place, feeling like there was no time to grieve.
A few weeks later, the first girl I ever dated ended our near three year relationship. She was getting ready for college herself and wanted a fresh start. Looking back, it makes perfect sense from her perspective at the time. But of course the decision left me crushed and confused.
I started to question myself more than ever before.
How did it all go so wrong so quickly?
Is there something wrong with me?
Am I not as special as I thought I was?
Football was a welcome physical outlet and isolated safe haven during those days. No matter how my day was going, I could always count on those few sacred hours working together with a hundred brothers towards a common goal. That sense of camaraderie was uplifting and having a dedicated place and time away from everything else was a blessing. Football was truly my passion, whereas school always felt like a necessity and a burden. Looking back, I know how rare of an opportunity this was, in a world where education, let alone higher education, is unavailable to so many. But in the moment I was so wrapped up in everything I was doing and intoxicated with the urgency of success that I rarely took time to properly appreciate what I was experiencing.
Second semester, however, football quickly became the biggest stressor in my life. At the beginning of spring practices, our position group was isolated and specifically forewarned with the possibility of being cut at the end of the month. Due to the amount of kickers on the roster, I got just one repetition every practice during field goal period with the team. Feeling burdened with the prospect of being cut and not yet adapted to the speed of the college game, almost all of my kicks got blocked that spring. With each practice and each subsequent failure, I grew increasingly convinced that I was done for.
Walking into my one-on-one meeting with the head coach after spring ball, I was prepared for the worst. With a straight look on his face, he told me I could remain on the roster because I wasn’t “horribly inconsistent”. None of us ended up getting cut that spring. Some vote of confidence though, huh?
Things weren’t all bad freshman year. I certainly enjoyed some of the time and experiences with the friends I made. But all of these stressful occurrences piled up and started to overwhelm me with a suffocating feeling of impending doom. The ability to succeed that came so naturally in high school already felt like a distant memory.
Convinced that I was the problem, doubts continued to creep in.
Maybe I had peaked in high school and would never live up to the standard I had set for myself.
Maybe I wasn’t good enough to stay on the team.
Or maybe I needed to change majors if I was going to make it to graduation.
Just a year into school and I felt like I had already failed. I was disappointed in myself and worried others would feel the same.
I lived a life of constant comparison. I measured myself against my teammates, my classmates, and the ideal version of myself in my head. And the real everyday version of me kept coming up short in these comparative scenarios. I wasn’t smart enough, cool enough, big enough, or good enough and I wondered whether I ever would be.
I couldn’t understand it at the time, but I now know I was dealing with mild anxiety and depression for the first time. I never got to the point of seriously contemplating suicide, but the feelings of inadequacy and a constant need to escape my disappointing reality dominated my consciousness. Having felt this initial hopelessness, I can relate whenever I hear a story of someone who felt they could find no way out.
I wasn’t emotionally intelligent or mature enough to admit these feelings to myself, let alone anyone else, so I instead buried them and sought refuge elsewhere. I was terrified of what others would think of me if they knew how weakened and alone I felt. So I kept everything to myself. I was caught in a vicious cycle of being afraid of failure and simultaneously afraid to admit I was afraid, ultimately leading me to avoid my emotions entirely to prevent judgement and the grand revelation that maybe I wasn’t OK.
My primary method of escape after freshman year quickly became getting high. A casual marijuana hobby soon became a daily necessity that developed into a psychological dependence. I accepted that I might no longer be the super achiever I was in high school and instead settled for a new secret identity as a high-functioning pothead.
I felt incapable of facing or resolving the bigger problems I faced, but I could always numb the pain by getting high. Smoking usually made me feel better or sometimes just helped me feel less. Developing this habit and hiding it from those around me gave me a sad sense of control, when I otherwise felt powerless.
I constantly convinced myself that I didn’t have a problem and that this self-medication was acceptable if not earned. I would use weed as a way to start my day, end my day, or deal with my day, whichever was needed. If a particularly difficult lecture or practice was making me question myself and my inherent worth, a joint awaiting me back at home could be the carrot to carry me through. I felt trapped by my reality, and smoking was the coping mechanism that enabled me to avoid facing problems head on.
I now realize that this became an unhealthy relationship and a dependency that I wasn’t comfortable admitting at the time. I could have chosen much more damaging indulgences to drown my sorrows in, and I feel fortunate that I didn’t develop any other serious addictions during this vulnerable period. But the point remains that I was avoiding my reality and choosing to regularly chase a fleeting high to overcome my feelings of isolation and underachievement.
I was able to keep myself regularly medicated and relatively stable for the better part of three years and never fell into a deeper depression. But I witnessed friends and teammates fight darker, longer battles.
When Owen killed himself my sophomore year, my emotional response was largely twofold. Initially I was more despondent than ever, devastated by the loss of such a shining star. In the months and years that followed, however, the loss of OT inspired me to fight for a brighter future. I knew that no matter how depressed I felt, I had never reached the depths of darkness that led him to suicide. This fact alone gave me a further appreciation for my own life that began my awakening process. I also knew that with Owen gone, the world needed more leaders and more genuine compassion in daily interaction. This realization gave me renewed purpose as I strive to live every moment in his image, making the world just a little bit better with each conversation and interaction I have.
I could never say exactly why I am here today to tell this story while others are not. Some combination of my inherent brain chemistry, the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve come across have managed to keep me afloat. Having been depressed and seen others battle depression, I have a renewed appreciation for each moment of being alive. Additionally, the lessons of gratitude, mindfulness, and the growth mindset learned in recent years have saved my life and carry me to this day.
But the realization I’m having now is simple. College isn’t meant to be something that must be survived. It is truly a twisted society we have become where such a supremely privileged educational and social opportunity is turned into an all-out pressure cooker. The experience should leave our students feeling inspired and empowered, not relieved to have left with their life and possibly their sanity intact. I know that this is hardly the attitude that the world let alone the entire country has towards education. But given my experience at Penn and what I have heard from peers at other institutions, I know this is a problem that our society can no longer continue to neglect.
In order to keep this conversation progressing, here are a few things I have learned from my experience.
I have learned how to redefine what success means to me.
Turning life into a game to be won does nothing but make all of the contestants feel like losers. I’m hardly calling for complacency, but rather more mindful pursuit. My buddy and huge inspiration Lisa Horn wrote a beautiful caption on Instagram a few months back that makes my point better than I ever could: get clear on why you’re chasing what you’re chasing.
In order to maintain balance in our lives we need motion. Without a clearly defined vision and purpose, however, it is far too easy to get lost when life throws us an unexpected detour. I now make sure to focus on the why and not just the how of doing the things that I do.
I’ve also learned to embrace and appreciate failure rather than shy away from it.
I now understand that the most disappointing moments in our lives are our greatest opportunities for growth. We are constantly changing, and it is thus imperative to stay grounded in the present rather than focusing on an ideal memory of the past or a hypothetical vision for the future.
No matter our income, our profession, our place of birth, we are all human beings who have made mistakes in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Each of our experiences during this life are inherently unique, and this fact alone makes them valuable. Not only is it acceptable to err, it is imperative.
A few posts ago, I wrote about how losing out on the opportunity to play during my senior season at Penn taught me to embrace change and focus on being grateful regardless of circumstance. More recently, I had the realization that I felt entirely unfulfilled working towards a career I thought I had wanted since high school. Going through both of these experiences and coming out a different, more fulfilled person each time has taught me that it’s ok to run into a wall and question yourself. My life certainly hasn’t gone the way I ever thought it would. And I’ve realized that that’s totally OK. I am me, today, and that is all that matters.
It is perfectly normal to want something different than what you wanted yesterday, no matter how big or small a part of your life it may have been. You are learning. You are adapting to the world around you. You are living. You are doing everything you are supposed to be doing.
Finally, I believe we need to provide more and better mental health support on our campuses and beyond.
Depression is an isolating battle, particularly in the social media age where we are presented with curated glimpses into the lives and times of our peers like never before. This culture based on instant gratification and acknowledgement leads to the suppression of our real emotions and the damaging habit of constant comparison. Students, professionals, children, adults, and everyone in between need to know that regardless of their experience or current life situation, they are not alone. It is OK to not be OK, and proper forums and practices need to be put in place to encourage these types of open, honest discussions.
I am far from an expert on mental health or campus administration but I do know that action is needed. To my extended Penn family and all those interested in this discussion, I encourage you to read and sign this petition to help reform mental health practices on our campus.
I need your help. We all need each other’s help. I firmly believe that we exist on this planet to collaborate rather than to compete. Let’s work together to be more honest and more supportive. Our health and our future depends on it.
Thank you for listening and for always encouraging me to be myself, through all of my failures and successes. Thank you for being in my life and for sharing your light with me. Know that I am always here if you need to talk, no matter how big or small of a conversation you are looking for.
I’ll leave you with a brief meditation on life, brought to you by philosopher Alan Watts and South Park’s Matt and Trey.
I hope to see you soon. Until then, you can find me on the grand dancefloor.