Guest Column by Nikki Hardison | Fighting the stigma within ourselves




The first time I visited a CAPS counselor, I felt an immediate wave of shame. It was the summer after sophomore year, and I finally began to acknowledge how my anxiety was unraveling my life. From the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep, I was hounded by incessant worrying and negative thoughts, which did nothing but erode my self worth. I felt increasingly alone, isolated and unable to find the support that I desperately needed. Life began to feel empty, and I felt nothing like myself. I felt lost. Somehow the girl who had always had it together found herself in a CAPS office spilling her problems to a stranger. As my counselor told me, these issues are not uncommon and I could receive help through therapy. Yet, why did I feel so ashamed?

Through the numerous discussions these past few weeks, much focus has been given to the stigma of mental health. Particularly for those in minority communities, this is an issue with which we are all too familiar. When you live in a society that demands so much of your existence, life does not stop when you feel sad. For many of our families, especially without the information or resources, mental health is often misunderstood and something we’re forced to suck up.

For me personally, there was a piece of me that felt like a failure that day I left CAPS. There was no explanation except the fact that I didn’t want to accept that I had gotten to the point where I “couldn’t deal.” As a black woman, the idea of being “strong” isn’t just a stereotyped character trait but rather an internalized mentality. I am guilty of telling people that I am doing fine, even when I know that it is thoroughly a lie. And I get it. Discussing mental health issues is awkward. It can make people uncomfortable, and no one wants to be judged as the “depressed friend.” But despite all my fears, I knew I needed to reach out for help.

Fast-forward into the fall, and my anxiety had slowly snowballed into depression. I began to avoid people almost out of habit, and I struggled to accomplish even the smallest tasks. Everyday I was drowning in my thoughts and had growing feelings of worthlessness and emptiness. I began to look for more long-term programs outside of CAPS and was fortunate enough to find free anxiety treatment at Drexel. Through this program, I have been able to better manage my thoughts and slowly find my way back to normalcy.

To those of you who are struggling with issues of your own, realize that your problems do not define you. You are so much more than a mental illness, and you can get better through therapy, medicine or both. I know reaching out for help can be terrifying, but it is worth it. Speaking to a counselor was the last thing I ever expected to do. But despite what I had been socialized to believe about mental health issues, something inside me made the choice to get help. Something inside me made the choice to live.

A fight worth fighting

Today, we wanted to devote some of those words to those of us who have fought mental illness and those who may still be fighting it. We want to urge any of you who need help to seek it, whether in the form of CAPS, an outside therapist, or a trusted friend or parent. Finally, we — along with many of the people who have shared their stories on this page today — want you to know that this is a battle that doesn’t have to be fought alone.

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While we can do our best as a campus to change the perceptions on mental illness, you cannot wait for someone to give you permission to do what is best for your health. Sometimes there won’t be someone there to walk you to CAPS. Sometimes your friends will brush off your complaints as “just stress.” But regardless of what others do, the least you can do is take the judgment off of yourself. Overcoming your own personal stigma is not an easy task, but believe me, you are worth it.

Nikki Hardison is a Wharton junior from Atlanta, Ga. She can be reached at chardi@wharton.upenn.edu.

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