You Don’t Have to Struggle Alone: Why Active Minds Matters

Laura Susanne Yochelson
Laura Susanne Yochelson

I suffered a life changing setback during freshman year in college because my chronic mental illness went unrecognized. Without an organization like Active Minds to provide support, I struggled alone. It has taken me a decade to recover—and I want to help others by sharing my story. 

In high school, I pushed myself extremely hard to get into colleges of my choice. I not only got high grades, but also led a community service club, wrote for the school newspaper, took a majority of Advanced Placement courses and tutored students in math. At the same time, I competed as a junior triathlete.

From the outside, no one would have guessed I was troubled inside! However, I suffered a severe eating disorder that prevented me from enjoying myself and being active socially. The therapist I was seeing as a result of my weight loss and depression pressured me to stay in southern California so that I could continue working with her. I had been admitted to the University of California, San Diego as well as UCLA and Berkeley. My mom, however, was moving back to Bethesda, Maryland, where my family had lived before moving across the country in middle school. 

My dad, who was starting to commute between both coasts, suggested that I apply to American University (AU) in Washington, DC so I could be near my mom and return to familiar territory. Even before classes started, I lost all sense of optimism when I met with an OB-GYN who warned that I needed to gain 10 to 15 pounds if I wanted to begin my period. I felt threatened but was unable to take action, refusing treatment and failing to inform AU of my problem.  

Instead of approaching freshman year as an opportunity to grow, I piled restrictions on myself because of my eating disorder and addiction to routine. I crossed the option of study abroad off my list from the beginning. My rejection of cafeteria food made it impossible to bond with other students in the honors dorm. While others got to know each other, I ate alone. My half-hearted efforts to join an environmental club and participate in Hillel never came to anything. Unlike many of my classmates, I never found the support of a community. My new therapist made matters worse by making claims on my time most weekdays.

The first semester turned out to be more than I could handle. Fear of being judged consumed me. A steep loss of weight—brought on by overpowering anxiety, fear, and depression—forced me to take a leave of absence mid-way through the year. But no one picked up on my eating crisis as an indicator of a deeper mental disorder.  

Withdrawing from campus for the 24/7 support I got from my mom set the stage for a very lopsided college experience. After taking a gap year, I resumed classes at AU while living at home. My self-absorption with my own pain led me to major in health promotion. I excelled in school with the encouragement of an understanding advisor. The groove that I fell into made it possible to take graduate courses without having much meaningful social contact with my peers.  My academic self flourished while my personal self was fed by fantasies rather than real relationships. I graduated summa cum laude without a single lasting friendship.  

I paid a very high price for not coming to grips with my eating and mental health challenges in college. Going it alone afterward, I published a memoir about being sick. My long, painful story did not make me the celebrity author I hoped to become.  Instead, I alienated my loved ones and plunged deeper into a world of my own making. 

It has not been easy to come to grips with the challenges I face. My AU advisor threw me a lifeline along the way, opening the door to graduate school and standing by me in the face of two hospitalizations. It took a full year of the right kind of treatment for me to complete graduate school and get my life back. Today, with a Master’s degree in hand, after a year of successful treatment for my chronic mental disorder, I am both equipped and determined to become a mental health advocate.  

Looking back a decade to my freshman year, nothing could have helped me more than finding a support network that could have prevented me from hiding in the shadows of my mental disorder. That’s the critical gap that Active Minds is filling on campuses across America; creating communities for students to advocate and support one another through thick and thin. I’m energized when I think of the positive mental health environments that will continue to grow this year. To all the students headed back to school, remember the strength of your voice and the power in sharing your story.