It’s been a mild winter. For me, that means a bit more than barely seeing an inch of snow. Past winters have been colored with an absurd amount of sleep, sometimes reaching 14 hours a day. Even when I managed to get out of bed, I would barely have the motivation to leave my room. I couldn’t imagine a life where I didn’t feel lonely or hopeless. Through my eyes, the entire world was bleak, lifeless and covered with a dull shade of gray. The medical term for this is depression. Last winter, my depression reached a point where I could no longer succeed as a student, much less properly function as a human being. It was the second time I took a leave of absence for my depression.
I returned to school this past Fall, but the ghosts of harsher winters past still hung around. Maybe I wasn’t feeling as worthless, but I still struggled to turn assignments in on time. I set goals but still failed to follow through on a number of commitments. I set out to establish new friendships and build on already existing relationships, but still struggled to find a sense of true belonging. Often the hardest part of transitioning back into Duke was trying not to feel ashamed, alone or weak simply because I was struggling.
It turns out that I’m far from alone. According to the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment, over 30 percent of students at two and four-year institutions reported that they have “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function” any time within the past year. More than half of students responded that they “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the same time frame. In all likelihood, that means that you or someone you know has also felt this way, but how many of us actually share these feelings with the people in our lives? How many of the people that we see on a daily basis are hiding their personal struggles, whether they arise from conflicts at home, feelings of inadequacy, the memory of a traumatic event or any other source?
It’s not easy to share something so personal or to admit a perceived weakness. Sometimes it’s easier to keep a journal or to post to an anonymous forum. This very column is a testament to the fact that I am more comfortable sharing certain things in writing. I don’t expect everyone to be as comfortable sharing their personal struggles with complete strangers. I can appreciate the value of keeping some things in life private, but I can confidently say that I wouldn’t be where I am today—excited for another semester at Duke with all of its challenges and opportunities—if it weren’t for the loving people in my life with whom I was willing to share what I was truly thinking and feeling.
A part of being able to share is being able to listen. This means much more than keeping your mouth shut when someone else is talking. It includes creating environments where everyone would feel safe to speak what’s on their mind. This responsibility applies to any environment you find yourself in, from one-on-one conversations to large group meetings. This means more than simply making sure that nothing harmful is said or done, but also going out of your way to validate that everyone’s voice is precious, valuable and able to be heard.
Some may protest that such a concern is self-absorbed. How much does it matter that I’m feeling crummy when Bashar al-Assad’s police forces are shooting protesters in Syria, the Israeli army is bulldozing homes in Palestine and U.S. drones are killing innocent children in Pakistan? The truth of the matter, however, is that it’s more arrogant to think that I can somehow save the world without taking care of myself first. Along with being informed of and engaged with current events, part of being a good citizen is looking after the health—which includes the spiritual, emotional and psychological health—of your fellow citizens, starting with yourself.
So if there’s something you’ve been meaning to tell someone, what are you waiting for? Tell them today. If there’s something you wish you didn’t have to struggle with alone, you don’t have to. Believe it or not, there are people out there who are willing to listen and willing to help. By now, you should’ve heard about most people’s winter breaks and talked all you can about the weather. Try changing the conversation to something a little more interesting, something closer to your heart.
Ahmad Jitan is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Thursday.