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The Disturbing Truth About Anxiety and Depression in College

Why was I so unhappy after finally making it to college? And what was my cure?

This post is in response to
The Tune Up That Every First Year College Student Needs
(c) chalabala/fotosearch
Source: (c) chalabala/fotosearch

Much has been written about the epidemic of anxiety and depression on college campuses. This guest post by college-aged Jake Heilbrunn sheds light on the cause and the surprising cure of at least one young man's college distress.


College was supposed to rank up there as one of the most fun, door-opening and gratifying experiences of my life. Like most high school students, I expected that in college I would work hard and play hard. I’d expand my social network, learn enthusiastically about a wide range of subjects, and choose a path that would lead to a rewarding career. For some students, college may fulfill those expectations. For me, the reality turned out to be disappointingly different. Like millions of students in colleges around the country I succumbed to intense anxiety and depression.

According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State, "anxiety and depression are now pervasive on college campuses.” [1] In a 2009 survey by the American College Health Association, forty-six percent of college students said they felt “things were hopeless” at least once in the previous 12 months. Nearly a third had become so depressed that it was difficult to function[2]. The suicide rate for teens and young adults 15 – 24 years of age has tripled since the 1950s, making it the third leading cause of death in adolescents and the second leading cause of death among college-age youth. [3]

What caused my personally succumbing to the anxiety and depression so prevalent in colleges?

I entered college at the age of 17. From the outset, deep down I knew something was wrong. Just weeks into my first semester I developed a chronic skin condition, my body’s visible signal to me of something amiss. I began experiencing severe anxiety and also became depressed.

As much as I struggled to pinpoint what was causing these problems, I couldn't understand why I felt so worried and down. It took browsing through my Twitter feed late one night for the message suddenly to become clear. A quote that I read there rattled me to the core. “If you fuel your journey on the opinions of others, you are going to run out of gas.”

What if my anxiety and depression are warning signs that something is off in my life? I am living my life based on the expectations of others. I am going down a path I have no interest in pursuing.

That was it! That was why I was experiencing intense anxiety all the time. I wasn’t living for myself. There was a mismatch between my current situation and what I wanted to do or be. This mismatch was why I felt constantly confused, upset, anxious and down. This mismatch was the conflict that had been creating my “dis-eases,” both mental (anxiety) and physical (skin problems).

Were anxiety and depression to be my fate forever?

Listening to my inner voice, I made a decision. I chose to follow my heart. I took a leap, a leap of faith and a leap into a different world. I left school after my first semester. I left doing what I “should” and hopped on a one-way flight to Guatemala.

I had no cell phone. I had no knowledge of Spanish. I also had no more anxiety or depression.

For four months I backpacked through Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, curiously exploring others' ways of life and delighting in having disconnected from a society dominated by social media and school.

With no plan really, when I arrived in Guatemala I aimed to get from the airport to a rural town that was 9 hours away by bus. The language barrier blocked me from being able to communicate through words. An accident up ahead caused the bus to get stuck on a one-way road for 6 hours, elongating the 9-hour trip to a 15-hour journey. When at last I arrived at 3 a.m., I felt both relieved and gratified. Accomplishing triumphs like making it to where I had chosen to go gradually brewed in me a new sense of self-confidence that I didn’t even grasp at the time.

In the coming months I camped in Guatemala, exploring ancient Mayan pyramids. I taught English and soccer to poverty-stricken kids in the local town where I stayed. In Lake Atitlan, I met an inspirational sabio, a wise man who was one of many extraordinary and also impressive ordinary people I encountered from around the world. My quest took me beyond the fringes of civilization to exotically remote places like the deep jungle of Guatemala and deserted beaches in Nicaragua.

By the time I had returned home from my pilgrimage, my Twitter-provoked realization had proved totally valid. Happiness emerges from pursuing a path that you find meaningful. My journey wasn’t just about arriving at a destination. Mine was about having learned to heed my intuition and turn toward my dreams.

Listening to myself brought me peace within myself. Continuing to listen to myself is sustaining peace within myself today.

What might you do if you are a college student with anxiety and/or depression?

According to a poll by Upworthy, by the year 2020 young people born in the 1980’s and 90’s, the so-called Gen Y or Millenials will make up almost half of the workforce. If you are one of us, will you keep trudging along the college route and onward from there to your first job, anxiously and unhappily following others’ expectations? Or will you choose a pathway that genuinely excites you, a path that your intuition is saying is what you yourself truly want to do?

If college does not feel right for you now, it may in a few years. And if you currently are working at a job you dislike, you probably have multiple options that you have not let yourself truly reflect upon. Life is precious. Listen to your inner voice.

I headed forth in the surprising directions where my inner voice pointed me to travel. I heeded my true desires instead of staying stuck in a college situation that felt wrong for me. I lost my anxiety. I lost my depression. And I found meaningful happiness.


[1] Hoffman, Jan. "Anxious Students Strain College Mental Health Centers."Well Anxious Students Strain College Mental Health Centers Comments. The New York Times, 27 May 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.

[2] Gabriel, Trip. "Mental Health Needs Seen Growing at Colleges." The New York Times. The New York Times, 19 Dec. 2010. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.

[3] "Information." Mental Health America: Factsheet: Depression in Teens. Mental Health Association, 8 Mar. 2009. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.


(c) Jake Heilbrunn
Source: (c) Jake Heilbrunn

Jake Heilbrunn, now 19 years old, lives in San Diego. He has just launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for his forthcoming book Off the Beaten Trail.

Off the Beaten Trail narrates the story of Jake's journey out of college and backpacking through Central America. .

Click here and scroll down for photos of Jake's journey. My favorite is the picture of him teaching. The kids look so happy as Jake teaches them English through dance moves.


(c) Susan Heitler
Source: (c) Susan Heitler

Psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD met Jake Heilbrunn at a Quantum Leap workshop for authors.

Dr. Heitler's new book, Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief From Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More, offers new ways of understanding and treating anxiety, depression and other negative emotions.

For self-help and also for therapists, Prescriptions can be used before or along with medication and therapy treatments.

Looking for help right now for depression? See the video below:

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