When I went off to Boston College nearly four years ago, I envisioned making new friends, having new adventures and starting a new life. What I didn’t anticipate was loneliness, anxiety and the sense that I didn’t belong at one of the country’s top universities.
College was supposed to be great. So, why did I feel so low all the time?
My mental health struggles became so acute that I no longer cared if I got out of bed, went to class or changed my clothes. But I reached out for help from my peers. That made all the difference.
As it turned out, I wasn’t alone. The nation’s college campuses are experiencing a mental health crisis. According to a new Healthy Minds paper, 60 percent of college students reported symptoms of one or more mental health problems in 2020-21. That’s up nearly 50 percent since 2013.
A new report from the American College Health Association found that three-fourths of students said they were experiencing moderate or severe psychological distress. Slightly more than half reported feelings of loneliness.
The pandemic has had an enormous impact. The interrupted semester, the move to online learning and constant worries about health — your own and everyone else’s — put an enormous strain on college students nationwide.
In my own case, I knew something was deeply wrong shortly after I arrived on campus for my first year. I initially figured I was just homesick; Boston is 1,500 miles away from my home in South Florida.
It was hard to admit that it was anything more. In Hispanic communities like the one I grew up in, mental health is rarely discussed. When things get bad, feelings are diminished or dismissed. You’re supposed to suck it up and carry on.
When the pandemic interrupted my freshman year, I returned home, attended class virtually, and cared for my parents, both of whom got Covid. In a panic, while my mom was in the ICU, I applied for a college scholarship I hoped would relieve some of our family’s financial burdens.
I have come so far since those dark days alone in my dorm room. I got here with a lot of help from my friends — and by giving a lot of help to my peers.
I returned to Boston for my sophomore year, and all the problems I had been experiencing — isolation, anxiety, depression — were exacerbated. By then, however, I had made friends with other students of color, and I reached out to them for support.
We talked about what it was like to be a minority student at a predominantly white university. We shared what we were going through, how we felt out of place in class, in our dorms and while walking around campus. I had a huge revelation: Other students felt exactly the same way I did. I was not alone.
I didn’t know it at the time, but peer-to-peer support is popular and effective. One in five college students have used it. It’s a critical resource for minority and first-generation college students. There’s a ton of research that suggests peer support programs really work.
My college friends gave me the confidence to seek professional help from Boston College’s mental health resources. In just a couple of months I went from knowing nothing about my own mental health to being diagnosed with and treated for generalized anxiety, depression and other issues.
It saved my life.
Since then, I have been very open about my own mental health issues. I have become a peer leader on campus to help other students not feel so helpless. I’ve learned a lot about myself and others throughout the peer support process.
I’ve learned that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness — it’s a sign of strength. It takes a strong person to be aware of their own shortcomings, and it doesn’t make them any less of a person for reaching out. I’ve learned that by acknowledging your mental health issues you are better able to regulate your emotions.
I’ve learned that while everyone has different values and perspectives, you shouldn’t feel less willing to help them. I’ve learned how to reach out to people and communicate and how to be empathetic. I’ve learned that by being open, honest and listening without judgment, I’m able to mentor and help others.
I’ve also learned that things do get better with time.
My college story is ending well. I’m president of an R&B and soul a cappella group whose members are other Boston College students of color. I also won a Hero Student Scholarship, the one I applied to when my mom was so sick. Not only did it help my family financially, it also told me that I mattered to myself and others.
I expect to graduate in May with a biology degree and a philosophy minor. I’m applying to veterinary schools for the fall.
I have come so far since those dark days alone in my dorm room. I got here with a lot of help from my friends — and by giving a lot of help to my peers. I might not be a hero to anyone else, but I’m a hero to myself; that is, and will always be, enough.
Silvia Ballivian is a senior at Boston College on the pre-veterinarian track.
This story about peer-to-peer support in college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.