What I Learned from Going to Counseling in College

No matter what you're dealing with, there's no shame in asking for help.
February 20, 2019
12 mins read

My junior year of college was tough. I moved out, ran my university’s newspaper, took five classes and balanced two jobs, a relationship and an internship. I drank six coffees a day, slept an average of four hours a night and cried on my way home from work at least once a week. I was miserable, but I did nothing about it.

My friend suggested I make an appointment at my college’s counseling services, but I quickly rebuked her efforts and said I was fine. I then was fine — until I wasn’t. It took one 4 a.m. phone call from the newspaper print and a crucially important missed deadline to make me realize I needed help.

I put off scheduling an appointment for months, telling myself I could handle it and just talk to my friends. But it didn’t matter how many vent sessions I had, my problems didn’t go away. Even worse, I didn’t get any better at dealing with them.

I soon discovered that there’s a difference between venting to a friend and actually working through your problems. Professional counseling was a service I had to search for outside of my friend group. There’s a lot of stigma surrounding counseling and therapy, such as what’s provided through Regain.us, especially in college, but I decided that couldn’t stop me from seeking the help I needed.

I hope that the knowledge I learned from my counseling experiencing inspires you to take a courageous step forward. Here are four most important things I learned from these experiences.

1. You don’t have to be depressed or suicidal to need help.

Counseling isn’t reserved for people struggling with a certain mental illnesses; it’s a resource for everyone. Don’t talk yourself out of going to counseling because there are “people who need it more.” I am a firm believer that everyone stands to benefit from seeing a counselor, no matter how severe you deem your problems to be.

Severity is not for you to decide; a counselor is trained to analyze symptoms and determine the severity of your condition. If you are diagnosed with depression, anxiety, OCD or another mental illness, the professionals will make the call.

2. You don’t have to be drowning to need help

Everyday stressors like heavy course loads, stressful relationships and an endless stream of roommate disagreements are points worthy of discussing with a counselor. Stress builds slowly overtime. If it’s not addressed, it can result in an emotional breakdown. A counselor can help you tackle one problem at a time, no matter how minute the issue may seem.

Consider this. Do you ever forget to rinse your toothbrush after brushing your teeth? Go into your bathroom right now and look at your toothbrush. Chances are there’s a sticky, congealed mound of paste hidden under the bristles. It’s not annoying until you acknowledge it, right? Or until you’re brushing one day and a huge chunk gets lodged behind your molars. Next thing you know you’re gargling Listerine to get the rancid texture out of your mouth, and racing down the drugstore aisle for a new toothbrush.

Stress accumulates in your body the same way old toothpaste builds up on a brush. The effects are barely noticeable until something sets it in motion. Most people don’t realize they need help until so much stress has accumulated that they are on the verge of a breakdown.

If you’re struggling with life-threatening issues such as suicidal or violent thoughts, substance abuse or depression, seek help immediately. If you’re dealing with things like anxiety, self-esteem/body image issues or have trouble focusing, you should still see a counselor. These problems might seem insignificant compared to others, but they deserve your attention. Stop comparing yourself to others and do what’s best for you.

3. Talking to a stranger about your problems isn’t as scary as you think — it’s empowering.

I walked into my first counseling appointment thinking, “How am I going to spill all my problems to a complete stranger? They’re going to think I’m pathetic and weird. Worst of all, they are going to judge me!”

It’s normal to be uncomfortable with spilling your heart out to someone you don’t know; society has trained us to be distrusting of strangers. But, for the purposes of counseling, talking to a person with whom you have no emotional connection can be extremely beneficial.

To be clear, the relationship between you and your counselor isn’t a friendship. When faced with problems, people tend to turn to their friends for help, but friendships are built with inherent biases and absorption of self-interests. In contrast, the relationship between a counselor and their patient is purely focused on the patient’s needs. By taking their own needs out of the equation, the counselor is able listen with a neutral perspective and focus solely on your situation, eliminating any external biases.

The relationship you and your counselor build starts with a blank slate, and while that’s overwhelming at first, I encourage you to look at it as refreshing. They are an outside perspective with no knowledge of who you are or the decisions you make. Emotionally driven relationships play an important part in an individual’s life, but counseling relationships are equally important for how they encourage the individual to form organic, logical conclusions.

When you experience stress in your day-to-day life, you are trained to hide it. You can’t skip class just because you’re stressed; you suck it up and go. You can’t miss work because you and your partner got into a fight; you put on a smile and punch in. But, you don’t have to hide anything from your counselor. You don’t have to pretend to be okay when you’re not; they don’t judge you or require you to be anything other than yourself. Being able to express your emotions unrestrained by school, work or your social circle is absolutely liberating.

Allow this empowerment to drive your honesty forward in your discussions with your counselor. While friends are a great source of empathetic and encouraging support, they don’t motivate you in the purely altruistic way that a counselor can.

4. You have a lot more to work through than you realize.

Before I went to counseling, I described my stress by saying, “I have a lot going on.” Little did I know, my perception of my stress was wrong; I had a lot going on, but I wasn’t acknowledging specific stressors. Admitting you have problems is hard, but identifying, prioritizing and organizing these problems is downright terrifying. I can admit that my kitchen is dirty, but pulling out all the appliances to sweep and mop behind them is disgusting — you are scared of what you might find.

At our first meeting, my counselor asked me to describe my daily routine, step-by-step. We started by quantifying everything with numeric values; how many jobs I worked, classes I took, hours I spent studying, friends I had, etc. We then broke down each piece of my routine by how they made me feel; how comfortable was I with working three jobs, taking five classes, etc.

Verbally walking through my routine made me realize just how much I had on my plate. If my counselor never had me do this activity of talking through my to-do list one task at a time, I would still be living in the infinity of “a lot to do.”

If you asked me to describe my stress now, my answer would be much more specific and honest. I am finishing up the second semester of senior year with three classes, three part-time jobs, a boyfriend and a pile of bills, all of which I am solely responsible for.

You may think you have nothing to talk about, but you do. Life is overwhelming, especially in college, when you are overloaded with both adolescent and adult responsibilities. You have to study for a reading quiz, but also file your taxes. You worry about a classmate liking you back, but also worry about scheduling your own doctor’s appointments. That limbo space is tough to navigate.

I’ve always overloaded myself with responsibilities, but I never stopped to wonder why I put so much on my plate. I accepted that I was a person who “did a lot of things,” and that I was happy that way. Several counseling sessions later, I realized I wasn’t happy; I was coping.

There’s a quote from one of my favorite movies, “The Truman Show,” that perfectly describes my situation, a place where you have probably found yourself too. “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented. It’s as simple as that.”

Many colleges offer free counseling and consultation services, so if you think you could benefit from speaking with professional, research the options available through your university. Stay strong and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Tatianna Salisbury, Northern Illinois University

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Tatianna Salisbury

Northern Illinois University

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