Knowing When to Ask for Help

A Student’s Perspective on MIT Mental Health Services

I’m not depressed. I don’t have suicidal thoughts, and in no way do I view killing myself as an answer to anything. But for the past school year, I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist at MIT Medical. Why? Well, because sometimes, there’s just no one else to talk to.

I’m not the type of person anyone would call a loner. I’m an active member in some of the largest student groups on campus, I have a group of friends I hang out with often, and the average student would probably recognize my name, for one reason or another.

You would expect with such a large support group around me that I would have someone to turn to when I had a problem. Sure, if I needed help on a problem set, someone would be there. Or if I needed to borrow cash for lunch, I could ask someone. But as I began to realize last spring, as the issues that surrounded my life became more serious, my willingness to reach out for help diminished.

In the fall, it reached the point where I would spend hours sitting in my room, doing nothing but thinking. The work would be on my desk in front of me, but I would just stare at the screen, hands idle as my mind raced through worrisome thought after worrisome thought.

That’s when I knew I needed help. The frustration had reached the point where I didn’t want to have my life continue that way.

I read online that MIT Medical’s Mental Health Services offered walk-in hours in the afternoon, and I went in. After filling out a short form, I was able to see a psychiatrist. We spoke for almost an hour and decided that setting up a time for us to talk more regularly might help me work through some of these problems.

That was eight months ago, and after meeting roughly every other week since, things have changed.

In reflecting back, I can now see some of the roots of the issues. Like many people at MIT, I think my problem was one of high expectations. Growing up, I succeeded in most of what I tried, so the expectation for success was always there. There was no room for failure.

But because I was successful, I felt as if didn’t have a right to “complain” once in a while about what life was like for me, because on the exterior, it seemed so great. When there are countless other people out there who are worse off than me, what right do I have in speaking up and complaining? My situation can’t possibly be worse than theirs.

I tried telling someone close to me about the problems I had focusing, and how my thoughts were overrun with this flood of concerns. She laughed. “At least you have a job for next year,” she said.

Yes, I do have a job for next year. I was “successful.” But what I realize now is that it doesn’t mean I don’t have problems, and it doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to get help.

The other driving factor that led me to keep these thoughts bottled up was that I was afraid to show any sign of weakness. After being the strong silent type for as long as I can remember, showing a more emotional, weaker side of me would change the perception that others had of me, and the thought of that was scary.

This idea of perception also drove me to keep my counseling a secret. Until recently, almost none of my friends knew I went to Medical for psychiatric help, and a main reason for that was the perception I thought others had with mental health patients. Would the respect that people gave to my thoughts and views be diminished if they knew of my current mental state?

Telling my friends was one of the hardest things I have done at MIT, but the result was unexpected. While I’m sure their perception of me has changed, part of it seems to be in a positive way. Sure there may be some negativity that people hold toward the notion of mental health, but what I received instead was more respect for being able to actually go and seek help.

Time with my psychiatrist has also taught me to dismiss the preconceived notions of therapy I had. I didn’t have to lie down on a couch and be scrutinized. I wasn’t kicked out after an hour because “time’s up.” I didn’t have to repeat things over and over again, because she did, in fact, listen and take note of everything I said.

The reasons for going to visit Mental Health Services can be quite varied. You can treat my experience as anecdotal, but looking back, what surprised me the most was that the concerns that were driving me insane, literally, did not seem to be unique.

I was worried about my obligations to my family, my relationship with my friends, and my religious beliefs. I could expand further, but the details aren’t important. What was important was that these thoughts/concerns/frustrations were driving my mind to the limit, and I just couldn’t concentrate on anything else.

What was utterly frustrating about the matter was not that I wasn’t getting anything done, but that I just couldn’t share my thoughts with anyone.

While the feelings of stress and anxiety were rising, it paled in comparison to the deep feeling of loneliness that this lack of communication was causing. After all this time at MIT, had I really not formed a friendship where I could feel close enough to talk to someone about a deep personal matter?

I knew that there were more subtle ways to approach the problem, but I realized that you can’t always wait for someone else to notice and push you to get help.

Putting these thoughts into perspective was what my psychiatrist helped me do and continues to help me do. It’s impossible to see things about your life like an outsider would, and even someone who only learns about you by talking with you can provide insight that you wouldn’t expect.

It’s not worth feeling alone, stressed, or anxious because you’re afraid to go talk to someone. For me, taking that leap has changed my last year at MIT for the better.

The undergraduate author of this piece asked to remain anonymous due to privacy concerns.