How it feels to be a first-generation college student dealing with depression
In the summers between school, I often rested my head against my bedroom floor and wondered, listlessly, what to do with my time. I stared at the space underneath my bed; one box held the Snapple caps that I liked to collect because they held so many amazing facts. Next to it, a pile of books. I read often, sometimes getting in trouble at the dinner table for trying to sneak in even more reading time. Every summer, I felt disconnected. I didn’t know what to do each day without the structure of school deciding for me.
Once I got to college, I snatched every opportunity to make my life as busy as possible. Yes, I wanted to be in your club. Yes, I wanted to work at the school paper. Of course I’d take the maximum number of units possible without paying extra for more (and if I could’ve afforded that, I probably would’ve done it).
But amidst that buzz of overachievement, something else was rattling inside me: deep sadness and dread and guilt that would soon make me realize something was very wrong.
College was the first time I decided that I needed to talk to someone about this feeling. I sought out counseling on campus, unsure of what to expect. My counselor, a soft-spoken woman, sat across from me — the only sound that filled the space was a soft hiss from the noise canceling device in the corner of the room. I felt nervous and self-conscious, as if I sat on display and she might analyze my every movement.
I told her about my feelings of depression, about the pressure I felt to do well in school. I explained my frustration at not being able to financially support my single mom. She said, simply, “That sounds like a lot.” Her tone, so genuine and caring, almost made me burst into tears.
Because it didn’t feel like a lot.
Not when my parents took whatever jobs they could to support my family. Not when my aunts talked about the years when they didn’t know English, when they felt like total foreigners in a new land. Not when my family members supported each other however they could, crowding into one bedroom apartments until someone could get on their feet. Not when my mom got me through high school as a single parent.
I stood at the pinnacle of their struggles: I was the American-born child who lived the American college dream. When so many opportunities lay before me, it felt like a privileged stance to complain about the pressure of classes and my job at the school paper.
School was the one thing I could do well so that their sacrifices didn’t go to waste.
Flipping through journal pages from high school, I realize now that school made up so much of my identity. I wrote about exams that made me nervous; I kept track of my GPA and my goals to improve it. Only a few pages were dedicated to crushes and family — the rest was about picking out classes and trying to study harder.
I felt a tension throughout all my four years of college as I faced my depression head on. The hints had been there for some time, but I still criticized my self with negative self talk. Couldn’t I just get over it and focus on my classes, like I always did? I was also aware of the struggles other first-generation students went through that put me in a privileged position: I was never afraid of being deported or having my parents deported. And I was aware that the resources I had were handed to me since birth — things my parents never had.
My family had survived much harsher situations — how could I feel such despair?
A study entitled “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016” looked at American, Canadian, and British participants. It found that “socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism have increased over the last 27 years.” The research concludes that this is most likely due to “more competitive environments, more unrealistic expectations, and more anxious and controlling parents than generations before.” So the strive for perfection, in other words, might be more intense than in previous generations.
I so strongly felt that yearning for perfection in my undergraduate career, and it only became more urgent given my family’s background. According to a 2012 Education Department study, more than one-third of 5-17 years olds in the United States identify as first-generation students. Of those students, more than 60% identify as Latinx. In “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016,” a study conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA, researchers found that “nearly half (46.0%) of first-generation college students reported wanting to please their family as a “very important” motivation for their decision to pursue a college degree.”
For first-generation students, every mistake can often feel like a slight against your entire family.
If your college career doesn’t pan out perfectly, you aren’t just letting yourself down. You’re letting your entire family down. But I couldn’t keep striving to be the perfect student while completely ignoring my mental health.
Just because I was trying to tend to my own well-being didn’t mean I was forgetting my family’s struggles. My family wanted me to succeed, but they didn’t want it to come at the cost of my own mental stability. I wanted to make a huge dream a reality for myself and for my family — but that didn’t mean I could put my own health and wellbeing aside. Depression doesn’t care about your privilege or lack thereof. It doesn’t ask you for information about your grades or your extracurricular activities. It wants nothing more than to consume your interiority, no matter your outside successes or dreams.
This journey to improved mental health looks different from person to person; for me it was only the beginning. In graduate school, I saw a counselor again. Then, after graduation, I saw a psychiatrist for the first time and she prescribed me Lexapro. At first, my family seemed apprehensive about the prescription. There was a sense of fear about what it would do to me — would it change my personality completely? Would I become addicted to it? And there was anxiety about the need for medication; couldn’t I just try other things, like yoga?
I go to therapy regularly now. And I think a lot about my family’s journey — but also about my own.
I found strength in the ways that I kept going even when my own mind seemed to work against me. It wasn’t the same kind of strength that my family touted, but I attribute a lot of my resilience to them. The decision to take medication and start seeing a therapist was my own. It took strength to admit my vulnerability and to resist the lure of depression as it pulled me away from my dreams and convinced me that I didn’t deserve anything good. It took all my will to fight against the idea that my academic success was the only thing that mattered. And it took so much effort to start admitting that my mind played tricks on me, and that my body was suffering because of it.
My family worked hard for me to lead a better life, but “a better life” doesn’t only mean academic or financial success. It means happiness too, and the opportunity to take steps to feel like a complete person again.