Let’s Talk About It: My Mental Health Journey At And Away From Penn State
The only way to fight the stigma against mental illness is to talk about it.
My name is Christina Platt. I am 24 years old and a junior at Penn State. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder when I was 15. My mental health journey over the last decade has shaped me as a person — it has shaped my interests, my intended career path, and the way I view the world.
In February of 2016, I was struggling through a part-time semester in the College of Engineering when I made the decision to drop out of Penn State. Looking back, the only regret I have is not making that decision earlier.
But, let’s start from the beginning. My college journey started in fall 2012. My first couple of semesters at Penn State went well enough: I maintained a decent GPA, was involved with a few different organizations on campus, and felt generally like I was on track. My depressive symptoms were controlled with an anti-depressant.
Everything really took a turn after my sophomore year. My dad lost his battle to cancer in September of 2014, which was incredibly tough for myself and my family. The world just didn’t really make sense anymore. I felt so isolated and alone, especially since I spent my fall interning at a company in North Carolina, far away from my friends, family, and everything familiar.
When I returned to school in the spring, I began to realize that I wasn’t so sure about my engineering ambitions anymore. I tried to persevere and pushed through an agonizing semester. I dedicated myself to my extracurricular activities, using them as a coping mechanism to keep my mind off all the turmoil in my life.
I hit a wall. Finding the motivation to get out of bed in the morning was excruciating. I skipped most of my classes, I had panic attacks, I self-medicated with sex, drugs, and alcohol. I felt helpless and lost. Towards the end of the semester, I was fortunate enough to have a friend who was able to help me get into therapy at CAPS, which was not easy prior to the endowment given by the Class of 2016.
Getting away from school for the summer was great, but shit really hit the fan when I returned to school that fall. Everything really hit me with the first anniversary of my father’s passing.
Since school was the primary stressor in my life, I decided that I had no business putting myself through another full-time semester and enrolled part-time for the spring, getting an internship as a computer programmer to fill the rest of my time. I soon realized that even part-time school was too much for me. I began working full-time as a programmer in the summer. I finally felt somewhat stable and in control of my life. Things were good for a while until they weren’t again.
Another winter rolled around and things took a turn for the worse again. My depression is very seasonal — it gets dramatically worse when the days get shorter. I would come into work and stare at my computer screen all day, struggling to get something done. It was the same cycle: I wasn’t happy, I couldn’t focus, and my work performance was poor. In March, I was laid off my job. My employer was generous enough to let me apply for unemployment, giving me some lead time to figure out what the next step in my life would be.
How was I to spend all of my time now that I was unemployed? Something made me feel compelled to spend that time outside. That same day I bought my first pair of hiking boots. I befriended the worker who helped me pick them out and three weeks later committed to hiking some trail in Vermont with him. About a week after, I realized that I had committed to hiking the 272-mile Long Trail, a famous long-distance trail that was the model for the Appalachian Trail.
I had never been backpacking before or even really hiked more than 5 miles at a time, but I had committed to it, so I started training and hiking several times a week in Rothrock State Forest. I went on my first backpacking trip that May and drove up to Vermont to hike the Long Trail in June. We weren’t able to complete the trail in its entirety due to a stress injury in my knee, but I was satisfied to put 160 miles of trail behind me.
I fell in love with hiking and backpacking and found that being in nature was the best medicine for my mental health. There is something so healing about being out in the woods that I can’t get from anything else. I felt happier and more in control of my life than I ever have before.
This fall, I returned to Penn State to study Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management with the intention of going into Wilderness Therapy, which is exactly what it sounds like — I want to take people on long backpacking trips as a means of helping to improve mental health. It might sound like bullshit, but it’s been scientifically proven to work and I’ve felt the therapeutic effects of nature firsthand. Getting away from the noise of everyday life and stripping down to the basics of food, water, shelter, and people really helps people put life in perspective and discover what’s truly important.
I still take medication every morning. I’m looking at going back to therapy now that winter has rolled around once more. I prioritize sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet (as much as a college student can). I get out and hike as much as I can on the weekends. My battle against mental illness won’t likely end but I can make lifestyle choices to help keep my life on track.
I choose to share my story as much as I can because the hardest thing about mental illness is feeling isolated and feeling like you need to keep everything inside and hidden. Talk to your family and friends if you’re struggling. Get the help you need. There is no shame in taking medication. Take care of yourself: Get exercise, eat well, prioritize sleep. Find what brings you joy and healing.
But most importantly, just talk about it.
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