Attending university can be overwhelming for many people, especially if you’re going to one in a different town or city. If you’re studying abroad, that can be an entirely different can of worms, and while most people come to cherish such experiences, it can be quite stressful for a number of reasons. Universities around the globe have different ways of dealing with these kinds of issues.
Most commonly, universities offer free psychological counseling services for students. You can essentially recommend a friend or course mate for counseling, or you can even go to the service yourself. It’s quite simple, and in hindsight, it sounds like a great idea. Mental health is extremely important, and students are disproportionately affected by the consequences of poor mental health.
My Experience With Psychological Counselling
I began my undergraduate degree at a renowned Turkish university in Northern Cyprus in 2017. While it had initially started off quite well, today, I can say that it was the worst experience of my life. What was meant to be the perfect university experience that would plummet me into the world of engineering quickly took an unexpected turn.
Suddenly, I found myself dealing with very adult social problems usually brought about by a bunch of nineteen-year-old boys who were probably left to their own devices for the first time in their life. But that’s a story for another day.
At the time I was going through this whirlwind of an experience, I thought that my social awkwardness was the reason behind so many misinterpretations. I thought that I was behaving inappropriately, sending mixed signals to my peers. In all of this, it was hard to tell who was my friend and who just liked me because I was willing to pay when no one was. I ended up spending most of my first semester trying my best to be friends with as many people as possible.
However, this backfired, and a friend of mine ended up ghosting me- after a series of very uncomfortable rumors. I ended up feeling so emotionally exhausted that I went back home during my winter break. My roommate suggested that I visit the psychological counseling department, but I was too proud. Admitting that I needed help meant that I was weak, and there was no way I would let anyone believe that.
And then it happened.
I ended up seeking psychological counseling in the middle of my second semester, shortly after my roommate confided in me about an abusive situationship she was in.
While I’ll admit that I wasn’t privy to all the details, seeing the result of abuse was enough to shake me to the core. That, combined with helping my roommate cope, defending her in front of friends, and the overall reputation I was getting for being associated with such a girl (because clearly, a Pakistani girl involved with someone other than her husband deserves everything that comes her way), I cracked under a week.
I had no plans to talk to anyone about it. I didn’t want to share the details or break her trust, but the pressure had built up, and I did not know what to do. Around the same time, a friend of mine was trying to set me up with a senior from our department, and even though the boy was very nice to me, I didn’t want to be in a relationship. I’ve always struggled with saying ‘no,’ and hanging out with someone I wasn’t interested in at all really drained me.
So, after being badgered by my younger sisters and friends back home, I finally decided to set up a meeting. I asked my friends about patient-doctor confidentiality in case I spoke about my friend’s issues. I had everything prepared. However, the session itself left me severely confused.
For one thing, in an English-speaking university with 20% (or more) international students, the therapists there did not know how to speak in English. A student was brought in for translation, and when I protested, I was given an appointment two weeks later because that was when the translator would be on campus. For the next two weeks, I was given two pills: the blue pill and the yellow pill to have after lunch and dinner. The blue pill was meant to help me with my depression (even though I had yet to be diagnosed) and the yellow one for my anxiety (again. I wasn’t diagnosed).
That week was blurry for me. I don’t quite remember what was happening. The days seem to spill into each other. At one point, my roommate’s abusive ex and I were hanging out where he tried to make a move on me, prompting me to push him. At another point, I completely broke up with the boy my friend was trying to set me up with. Said friend also sat me down at one point to ask me what was wrong because I wasn’t behaving like myself, and I probably ended up being extremely rude to him as well. I just remember thinking that everyone around me was plotting against me.
Apart from that, I don’t really remember what happened. What I do remember is that every time I took those pills- and that was twice a day- I felt my world spin. I don’t think I attended classes that week. I think I missed a midterm too, I’m not sure.
After two weeks, I met the therapist, and I was informed that I had clinical depression and crippling anxiety. Instead of one blue pill per mealtime, I was given two. The yellow pill was only reserved for lunch. I ended up withdrawing into myself completely, and the therapist essentially started experimenting with my doses of the two medicines.
Note that I’m using the word therapist for this. That’s because I was informed by the translator that I was meeting a therapist. I later found out that therapists aren’t meant to experiment with medicines. That’s what a psychiatrist- and to a certain extent, a psychologist- does. I’m not sure who I was treated by because the translator would avoid my question whenever I asked.
The semester ended, and I went back home for the summer. I had no pills to take at home, and I ended up experiencing withdrawals. Of what? I did not know that point. It continued for a while, and I started having nightmares of the university to the point where I begged my parents to let me transfer. I failed to do that, and when I went back to university, I was on my pills again. I ended up transferring to Ankara after an awful semester where I alienated virtually everyone in my year.
To this day, I wonder why I did that. I have no excuse. In Ankara, I started experiencing withdrawals, which prompted me to look for a therapist who would provide me with the pills once more.
And that’s how I met my current psychologist/therapist (I still use these terms interchangeably, unfortunately), Dr. B- as I like to call her.
Private Therapy Saved Me Where My University Failed
My first session with my good doctor was quite different from my university’s service. I had a therapist who not only spoke English but understood it well enough for me to articulate my thoughts properly. We talked about my experiences, any problems I had, and most importantly, why I came to her.
I lied, of course. I wasn’t going to admit that I had severe headaches and fatigue, so I ended up talking about my relationships. I was a bit concerned at the end because she did not give me the pills. I thought that if I spoke about the “horrors” I’d experience, she’d eventually give in.
Three sessions later, she managed to find out exactly why I had been so adamant about “treatment.” My university’s psychological counseling department had been giving me an unnaturally high dosage of antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills. It was Xanax and something else. I think it was Sertraline, but I’m not sure as this happened to me between 2017 and 2019. I went to Dr. B in October 2019. My doctor was seething and attributed misdiagnosis to a number of things that were happening to me.
Together, we worked with a general physician to overcome this addiction. I started cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and when the pandemic gave way to the first lockdown, I used to have online therapy sessions. During this time, I came back home, and my doctor suggested that I go to an obstetrician-gynaecologist (OBGYN) because I was having issues with my cycles.
That one visit really crushed me.
For some reason, it’s considered ‘cool’ in certain circles to be taking medication for our mental problems. At my old university, the excuses I would often get for someone’s behavior were due to the antidepressants we were all on. While I admit that even I blame most of my behavior on the pills, I don’t actively sit in a group of friends and brag about it. I think it’s embarrassing that a tiny little pill was able to make me behave and do certain things. It shows that I’m not strong-willed. It’s got nothing to do with being cool.
Similarly, in Pakistan, abusing prescription drugs is very, very common. Some of the top kids in my class would use Xanax, Retinol, and some other drugs to perform than the rest of us.
What I learned at the OBGYN’s office was that taking these pills had essentially ruined my hormones. The sudden acne, hair fall, hyperpigmentation, reduced nail growth, every single thing was because of the yellow and blue pills. My family ended up bringing in several specialist doctors to fix everything that’s gone wrong.
As I wait for the various treatments (and potential surgeries, but there’s a 1% chance of that), I often end up wondering what would’ve happened if I hadn’t gone to counseling service. Would I still have my friends? Would I still be at my former university? I don’t know. But what I do know is that nothing is free in life.
And psychological counseling services fit that bill. So, if you take my advice, don’t go to your university’s counseling service. Maybe your university has better resources than mine did, but don’t let anyone mess with your brain. It can seriously ruin your entire body.