Prioritizing Our Mental Health by Madison Wiser

Let me be clear: this is not a how-to, a step-by-step guide, or IKEA instructions to prioritizing our mental health. If I had any of those, I would have printed them off and put them all over campus instead of writing to you today. This is more of a message in a bottle, cast adrift on the waves. My hope is that by the sending and receiving of this message, both of us can feel less alone.

Spring semester of freshman year, two of my grandparents passed away. Standing at my grandmother’s grave in the wintery Colorado landscape, snow fell wet and heavy on my shoulders, the sky eclipsed by gray clouds. My whole body felt raw and cold. Little did I know how much that scene would set the tone for spring semester. Though both my grandparents passed away in February, grim feelings continued to follow me.

I’d had a history of mental health problems in high school, so it only made sense that they’d affect me again in college. I struggled to sleep, working late into the night, staring at my wall for answers. In class, when my stomach grumbled, I’d shift uncomfortably and try to ignore it. My brain could no longer remember the details of my life—due dates, club meetings, social commitments—so I let them all slide to the wayside while I convinced myself just to keep moving.

I took many walks around campus in cool blue nighttime, wandering past the bronze horned frog by Scharbauer Hall or listening to the rush of water at frog fountain. While walking, I thought about my classes, my friends, and my writing. I wish I could say that they were good thoughts, but they seldom were. It always felt like my GPA was in free-fall, like I shouldn’t burden my friends with my feelings, and like writing never brought me the same joy that it used to.

To create this piece, I reached out to the Wellness Center here at TCU. I wanted to hear from a fellow student about their experience with prioritizing mental health in college. On a Thursday afternoon, I visited the Wellness Center at its home in the basement of the Recreation Center. Sitting inside the cozy center lit by warm lamps, I talked with Ally Ameel, a director for the group of people on campus known as Frogs for Wellness Peer Educators.

Ally is a junior majoring in electrical engineering from Austin, Texas. Along with twenty-four other students on campus, she works with the Wellness Center to educate and inspire the entire campus to value our physical and mental well-being. We can spot the Frogs for Wellness putting on events outside the BLUU or on the commons, spreading education through food, games, and giveaways. As Ally and I talked about mental health, she emphasized self-awareness about the choices we make for ourselves. In times of distress, rather than allow a moment to breathe, we prefer instead to pretend that everything is fine. 

I’m a perfect example of this attitude. Spring semester, I allowed my stress to spike all through the week until I could sleep for the entire weekend. Rather than try to form healthier habits or talk to my friends, I believed if I could push through it, then I was healthy enough.

 I asked Ally how we can make it a point to prioritize our mental health. She advocated for something as simple as starting a conversation about how we’re doing, or asking a friend about their life. Those of us who struggle with mental health can feel like others will stamp judgements and labels on us if we speak up, and especially if we visit the counseling center or a therapist. However, as both Ally and my freshman year have taught me, that isn’t true: while college can be a great and memorable time in all our lives, that doesn’t mean we don’t still go through things.

Life stops for no one, as much as we may wish crises wouldn’t happen two days before a huge paper or exam. I remember sitting in my professor’s office, swallowing down a thick cloud of tears, as I explained that I needed an extension on a paper because I had to attend my grandfather’s funeral. That day, I opened up to someone for the first time about how much I was struggling with the combination of grief and stress. My professor met me with empathy and compassion, directing me to Campus Life for the extension I needed. After I saw how speaking up even once helped, I’ve tried to do it more. 

As I came to the end of my chat with Ally, we ended up talking about grades, and how academics can often push our stress and mental health over the edge. She told me that we have to show appreciation to ourselves, and in her words, to “find the value for yourself aside from school and grades and everything.” Her sentiment really resonated with me. 

When we strive to “prioritize” something in our lives, we strive to put it first in line, first in value, and first in importance. For me, I want to keep Ally’s advice close, and place valuing myself first on my priority list. Ironically enough, the day I talked with her, I’d had a terrible and stressful morning. Walking into the Wellness Center, I felt down on myself and my major, prepared to force those feelings aside for the sake of the work I still had for the day. 

However, after our chat, I ended up going home to lie down for half an hour and catch my breath. Then, in between homework, I had dinner with some friends where we all shared the good and bad of our days. I realized that silence is one of the deadliest ways we try to cope – which is a reason I wrote this, to fight back against my own silence, but also to hopefully make you feel seen in yours. 

Throughout the school year, as we all work through life in college, keep an eye out for the Frogs for Wellness. They have three major events this semester, one revolving around alcohol awareness, another called Wellness Week, and the third dedicated to mental health. They’re excited to share with us the same kind of insight that I gained from talking to Ally. 

Most importantly, reach out. Check in on the people in your Greek organization, your roommates, your best friends, your teammates, your family. As much as I can, I want to be more generous with my time and love, both for myself and the people I care about. Even though things felt bleak in winter, if living at TCU and in Texas has taught me anything, it’s that there’s always sunnier days ahead.