Mental Health and College: Treatment vs. Self-Medication

Kimberly Tyler Health Guide
  • When attending college with mental illness, two different treatment options often present themselves: treatment by professionals or self-medication. When I was in college, more opportunities presented themselves for self-medicating.


    Mental illness is now more readily addressed in college institutions, and therapy is almost always included in the health plan offered by the school. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 now enables a person with mental illness to obtain a "pass/illness/ disability card" from their treatment providers on campus to give to their professors offering varying school policies for extensions, and more time when taking exams. (Not everyone will need to do this, but it is valuable information to have.)

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    Getting support through professional help and support groups is very, very important, particularly when initially starting off at a new school. Knowing you are not alone in what you are experiencing, and obtaining treatment and support will allow you to manage the illness, rather than allowing the illness to manage you. Lessening the impact of the illness on your day to day life will more than likely create the opportunity for enjoyment and learning.


    In a college setting there are few "rules" or adults to monitor what is going on, and young adults are able to make their own decisions.  If treatment for mental illness is not addressed or taken seriously, a person may become a prime target for self-medicating.


    While I was in college, I was still undiagnosed with my depression, anxiety, and PTSD and my mental health issues managed me. The choices I made in college were based on ignorance. Ignorance need not be part of decision making. I can not stress enough the importance to educate yourself, your family, your friends, a new roommate--whatever it takes. Do not believe that you can escape or alleviate the sadness you are feeling with drugs or alcohol.


    What College Can Look Like Without Mental Health Intervention:


    I attended a school with over 25,000 students. It was an in-state school, as my parents agreed to pay for college only if I went in-state. (My feelings of deserving less than others played a role in my decision for college, as I had the grades to apply for private or an Ivy League. I simply lacked the wherewithal to obtain financial aid.)


    When I arrived at the dorms, lo and behold: there were four drug dealers living on my floor! Considering my experiences in high school, this was an interesting prospect...


    I chose Engineering as my major and took all the weeding out classes my freshman year. I was so very unhappy. I even wrote a letter to the high school counselor I was assigned to (but never met) to ask her how to transfer to another school. My depression caught up with me hard. I was unable to keep pretending. I was miserable and a wreck. If I was not attending an Ivy League school, I thought that none of the work I was doing would matter. I was caught between snobbery and depression. I felt that the work put forth with my studies did not matter. I began to cry and disassociate a lot.


    I thought I could try what I had done during high school and get involved with sports again. This did not work. I attended a Division I sports college and the teams were recruited or on scholarship. I was too shy to do intramural sports past the first two attempts: the crowds were huge, and I was overwhelmed. I still jogged on my own, and this was an early method of escape for me. This daily exercise of jogging was a form of stress release as well (I just did not know it at the time).


    I did get involved in student government in my dorm area, and that was at least a beginning to make friends. I had no interest in it, but my sister did it while in college, so I followed her example. I really had to push myself and not run from the room for the first few sessions. A peer from my dorm was nice to me, and this is the only reason why I stayed involved. Pure happenstance for friendships.

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    I did seek out a therapist on campus. I did not tell her my suicidal thoughts, but I did tell her the home life I left behind, how my sadness was crushing, and that I wanted to leave and be anywhere else but here. I saw her for three sessions before I quit. Here again was a missed opportunity. I could have started treatment of some kind as they had the facilities, but I chose not to continue because I felt like such a loser.


    Being in such a depressed state, I ended up dating men who were not very nice. (My self-esteem was so low that when a boyfriend told me I needed to lose weight I dropped 15 pounds. I was already slender and not overweight by any means, but I did it anyway. I looked sickly, but he liked it--this is an example of what NOT to do!)


    I also become friendlier with the drug dealers on my floor. They seemed relaxed, and I wanted to know what that was about. I choked on my first bong hit and even then, "all was cool." Wow, they were so nice! So, I tried pot a few more times. The "luck" in this scenario is that I was already so paranoid I stopped doing it. I had the opportunity to try just about every other drug, but I was too scared to lose control. In hindsight, I am glad I was too scared. I know I would have so easily become hooked due to my desperation to escape. This was a close call that I barely dodged.


    One drug I did try (again) was cigarettes. Right across the hallway, I could go into my friend's room for a "study break" and share a cigarette. These smoking buddies soon would then seek me out in the library at 11:00 p.m. to take me to keg parties or frat parties. This is when my binge drinking started. Smoking and drinking became my escape. I smoked when I was happy, I smoked when I was sad, I smoked when I studied, I smoked when I was stressed. The drinking was secondary. The smoking, for me, was primary. (I know now that smoking increases the serotonin levels in the brain and perhaps this is why I liked the feeling of smoking and became addicted so quickly.) Once the smoking and drinking started, I began to care less and less about Ivy League status. I was also unable to keep up with my running due to the smoking, and thus smoked more.


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    I was a walking dichotomy: serious and obsessed honor student indulging in hard drinking at least one night per week and slowly killing myself by smoking. And none of the escape tactics mattered. Only the grades mattered, and how I got them did not faze me.


    Sadly, the last semester of senior year I was still extremely suicidal. (None of my "escape" tactics worked long-term.) If I did not achieve a certain grade status upon graduation, then that would be it for me. I did not have a plan for suicide, but I knew it would be my answer. When I actually achieved the grades I desired, I could have cared less. Once I achieved what I thought I desired, I was lost all over again. If I was not going to die, then what? I did not know how to live and I was so exhausted.


    Graduation day came and went, and again, I could have cared less. My obsession with grades is a clear example of co-dependency: once I achieved the cumulative average I desired, I thought I would feel better. I was wrong. Once I achieved it, all was forgotten and I was on to the next thing to achieve to make me feel better about myself. My co-dependency lasted for years until I became educated not to continue to repeat the patterns.


    This is what college was like for me: total and complete stress and chaos. Ignorance was my foundation, and this need not be your experience. I share all this as information to perhaps promote thought and/or discussion.


    See also by Deborah Gray:


    How to Minimize Your Chances of Becoming Depressed in College 

Published On: August 16, 2007