Thrive, don’t just survive. That’s the saying many Grinnellians (the term Grinnell College students and alums call themselves) like to throw around. Often said in a sarcastic manner, this phrase is used to acknowledge the rigorous-to-the-point-of-a-nervous-breakdown culture Grinnell College is known for. The culture of stress not only dominated academic lives, but also infiltrated the personal lives of many, including myself. Conversations with friends frequently involved joking about our imminent mental burnouts and perpetual states of stress-driven anxiety; however, the joking demeanor masked the very real mental health struggles which consumed and defined my underclassmen years in college.
At the age of 17, I entered college with a pocketful of eating disorders and a slew of insecurities. I would soon learn the space where my eating disorders dwelled was cohabited by an old but silent friend by the name of dysthymia. The powerfully toxic combination of depression and eating disorders manifested a breeding ground of self-doubt, shame, and soul-sucking loneliness.
Engaging in the simplest forms of community building like talking to professors, classmates, and even roommates was painfully challenging. Self-confidence was a foreign concept to me during this time of my life; insecurities plagued my every interaction with others. I was at a point where I wholeheartedly believed I offered zero value to the world. This self-destructive mindset prevented me from creating the nurturing relationships and connections needed to thrive in rural Iowa, a landscape unknown to a tropical city-dweller like myself.
It was only until the summer after my second year in college I decided to make my mental health a top priority and begin living a life of thriving instead of a life of surviving. I spent the summer months learning how taking care of myself—mentally, physically, and spiritually—looked like. Investing time in communities and activities that nourished me gave me a glimpse of the Nicole who wasn’t identified by her mental illnesses.
Taking the conscious and intentional step to make my mental health a priority allowed me to begin my journey towards recovery. Universities and other institutions that hold significant influence and power should take that step as well, since I believe mental health is integral to the wellness, stability, and success of an individual. By making mental health a priority in communities, individuals are made aware of mental health’s role in their lives and thus, are empowered to take responsibility for their own mental health.
While mental health was not included in the mainstream discourse during my underclassmen years at Grinnell, I’m proud to say by the time I graduated in 2016, it was slowly but surely becoming a top priority for administrators, professors, and staff of the college. The push for a recognition of mental health’s importance came from the bottom—students and student-led organizations were the impetus for this movement. However, the responsibility for shifting the culture around mental health shouldn’t solely lie on those who are directly impacted—those in power need to recognize their community members needs and work together to develop a solution that’ll allow everyone to thrive.