Fishbein: My Mental Health Battle

Students at Dartmouth face many struggles — we should reach out for help.

by Dan Fishbein | 2/28/17 12:15am

One day the sun will blow up, and humanity will cease to be. You and I will have died long before that. In the grand scope of the universe, our lives amount to nothing.

My freshman fall, I found myself standing on the edge of the bridge that goes to Norwich, Vermont, staring down at the icy water below me as my mind struggled to comprehend this existential truth. I remember feeling lost and alone. I had come to Dartmouth without any plan for what I wanted to do with my life. As a generally asocial person who spent almost all his time in high school by himself, I desperately missed the stability that my family provided to me when I got to college. For a while, I felt as though I wanted to take away the pain that coming to college had inflicted on my psyche.

I’m happy to say that I have turned the corner. Both psychological therapy and a strong support system of family and friends have helped me in conquering my social anxiety, controlling my emotions and finding positivity in my life.

I want to use this article to encourage those of us currently facing mental health struggles to stay strong and persevere. According to the American Psychological Association, in 2013 41.6 percent of college students had anxiety, while 36.4 percent had depression. Yet, despite this prevalence of mental health issues, discussions surrounding these topics remain oddly taboo. As a columnist, I believe that I have an obligation to voice my opinion that this taboo must end.

At times it might seem like everything operates against you. Last winter, I did not want to leave my room. I would go to classes, but I felt scared the whole time, that others would judge me and say that I did not belong on this Ivy League campus. The buildings at Dartmouth loomed over me, making me feel small in their shadows. Away from home for the first time, having made few friends at college and not wanting to worry my family, I turned even further inward. I bottled up all of my emotions, determined to focus solely on my schoolwork while neglecting all other aspects of my life. I had this idea that, since good grades could ensure a bright future, I could will myself to endure whatever I faced in the present.

Life, though, as the saying goes, is about the journey, not the destination. I developed this mentality, in which I completely abandoned my present happiness while working toward future goals, that ultimately did me more harm than good. I would stress so much about my academic performance that I got, caught up in nerves, unable to function to the best of my ability. To escape my depression and free myself from this angst that jeopardized my capacity to achieve, I had to learn to live in the moment. If I spent all my time caught up in what would happen five or 10 years from now, I doomed myself to a dull and dreary existence, one that would negatively impact the idea of a bright future that I clung to.

This past term, in my literary theory class, I had the pleasure to read and write an essay on a short paper by Friedrich Nietzsche, called “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.” That might sound weighty, but if you feel down or stuck, I could not urge you strongly enough to read it. Philosophy, while dense, has a unique ability to challenge your entire worldview. Nietzsche, aware of the existential state of the human condition, challenges his readers to think critically about the truths that we accept in our lives. In his view, all truths that we have are invented by humans. Whether with science or with words, we invent our own systems of knowledge. To me, Nietzsche’s argument boils down to a claim that, since we will all die one day, it is foolish to blindly accept the truths that society tells us to accept. Rather, we should challenge ourselves to be individuals and formulate our own unique values.

Looking back on it, I see many of the challenges I faced in my freshman year depression as the product of societal pressures I felt placed on me. Growing up in a staunchly Catholic and socially conservative hometown, I felt confined to certain notions of masculinity and sexuality. Coming to Dartmouth, I took several computer science courses, as I, like most students I met, was caught up in thinking about career prospects and earning power. Socially, I struggled to align my own often insular personality with the vivacity and extroversion of fraternity life.

Now, though, as I’m rediscovering my confidence and enjoyment for life, I’ve found myself accepting a more Nietzschean way to live. I have my own values and feel empowered to live by them. I can define myself and my personality as I wish. Instead of taking computer science classes to get a good job, I can take classes where I can read Nietzsche and work toward a career in education — not because it offers a good salary but because I have a passion for helping others discover their own individuality.

Because of the struggles I have faced in college, I have not been able to meet as many of my classmates as I would have liked. We are all here for each other, though. After reading this column, I implore you to reach out to me through email (you can find me in Dartmouth’s directory) if you need someone to talk to, any time about anything. I also encourage anyone struggling with mental health issues to contact Dartmouth’s Counseling and Human Development services and other professional resources.

Yes, we will all one day die. But before that day comes, we can live life on our own terms.