On Thursday mornings, I find myself sitting on the plush blue sofa, waiting for my name to be called. There are a few of us here, waiting quietly. A tall, jock-ish-looking guy with blond hair looks out the window. A small girl in leggings scrolls on her iPhone. I don’t look at any of them, and they don’t look at me. It's a little awkward, but it's also nice not waiting alone.

“Bella?” I turn and it’s Gary in his usual black turtleneck, smiling at me. Instantly, I feel a little better. I follow him to his office, out of the waiting room at Duke's Counseling and Psychological Services.

This February is Mental Health Awareness Month at Duke, a month that celebrates transparency about mental illnesses and highlights the various support services available to students. In my age bracket, 1 in 4 young people will experience mental un-wellness at some point, and suicide continues to be a leading cause of death. Yet despite its overwhelming prevalence, mental health remains a murky topic that often needs the veil of anonymity to be comfortably talked about. There have been improvements at Duke—more students are openly sharing about their own struggles with mental health, and the stigma against going to CAPS seems to be diminishing.

Seeing a counseling at CAPS is often brought up as an intervention. But what does counseling really involve? What happens after the waiting room? And will it really help you?

So in honor of this month, let me be entirely honest and open in what I’m about to write. Real honesty can be so difficult to find in conversations about mental health, yet it is so powerful, and vital if we are to normalize and support those who are suffering. I have struggled with my mental health deeply, and have been seeing a counselor for about four months now. Being at Duke has brought about both my best and worst memories of living. I have had moments where I’ve been sick with misery and consumed with self-loathing. I have also felt ecstatically happy and grateful.

But there was a point, last semester, where I was not well at all. I was faking positivity to myself every day and pep-talking myself out of bed, throwing on smiles when all I wanted to do was cry. I felt as if I was worthless—achieving nothing, doing nothing, even though I knew rationally that that wasn’t true. I would look at my schedule, teeming with coffee appointments, class assignments, deadlines and feel utter hopelessness. People seemed unreachable. Duke seemed unbearable.

Yet even when it became apparent something was wrong, I did not immediately seek help. At the back of my mind was a sinister whisper that refused to go away. It shamed me and angered me, and prompted me to deny my feelings further. Out of everyone at this school , why did I need help? Why had I failed?

It was the possibility of feeling good again that pushed me to make an appointment at CAPS. I was beginning to fear that I would only know life through my depressive feelings. It was a horrifying thought and I did not doubt that if I let it go far enough, I would get hurt. A part of me cared about that. So a few weeks later, I found myself in a quiet, calm room with dim lights where I was offered, not a quick fix or someone pushing me on “how I felt”, but a chance. A chance to understand myself, in the midst of these complicated emotions and values. A chance to get out – to get better.

I took it. Eight sessions later, I think going into counseling has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I cannot overstate the liberating relief I feel when my emotions are validated instead of dismissed. Every week, Gary and I sit down together and simply chat about my week. I tell him what has disturbed me, and what has empowered me. He listens intently and asks reflective questions. What was it about this situation that hurt me? Imagine I could tell this person anything, no holds barred – what would I say?

The answers have surprised me. In fact, I’ve learned to accept that, despite being in my own mind for twenty-one years, I know very little about myself. Our sessions are like an independent study into my own persona, where I examine how I react to certain situations and why they incite certain emotions. I often wonder if I see myself accurately, or if I am too harsh. I have learnt to catch myself and re-assess when I self-hate. How much do we all think reflectively about our internal processes and memories? In this uncertain stage of life, I believe the insights counseling can yield are useful to any young person.

This is not to say that counseling is always helpful, and that it solves everything in mental health. The exploratory nature of it makes everyone’s experience varied and unique. Yet the stereotypical image of lying on a couch and talking about how you feel robs counseling of the complexity it deserves. For me, it is much more than that—it’s an intimate leap into my own mind that is exhilarating, uncomfortable, and confronting. It's helped me determine my values and priorities, and taught me that emotions are actually a subconscious reaction to whether these are upheld. It’s showing me, slowly, how to be happier.

I don’t want to speak for anyone but myself, on what it is like to step into Gary’s room every week. But if you’re feeling pressure that’s building and building, if you find yourself despairing, if you’re crying in the bathroom stalls, and you don’t know what to do, listen to me. Your mental health is an important—perhaps the most important—thing. It stays with you long after physical health diminishes. It can heal, and it can kill. Your emotions are not supposed to be repressed and hidden. Your emotions are trying to protect you from harming yourself. Please give CAPS a chance, if you haven't already, even if you have to wait.

Maybe I’ll see you in the waiting room, and we can wait together.

Isabella Kwai is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Thursday.