Come Up Smiling

College is a hard time for those of us who experience mental health difficulties. This is a profile of one college student who grew through it.

Trigger Warning: Please make sure you are comfortable with reading about depression, suicide, and related mental health problems before beginning this piece.

The first thing you notice about Klio Irby is her smile.

It makes the room brighter. It makes you feel excited.

It makes it surprising that she's struggled with mental health since childhood.

"Every Wednesday night in third grade, I would get extreme anxiety when 'Sons of Anarchy' came on," she said. "I would get nauseous and shake myself to sleep. Every Wednesday I would get sick."

She couldn't control her temper. She'd get severe anxiety. She'd sink into a depression when her parents fought. In 2016, she began her first year at UCSB as a Biological Sciences major.

"When I came to college, I just focused on school. I studied all the time. My worth was based on how I was performing."

Then she scored below the curve for the first time: her first breaking point.

She found herself breaking down more and more frequently, until somebody asked her if she had ever talked with a psychiatrist.

They diagnosed her with bipolar disorder – a mood disorder associated with episodes of mood swings ranging from depression to mania. These episodes can last weeks or even months before symptoms shift again.

"That day I thought, 'Holy shit, this all makes sense.'"

The anger. The anxiety. The hours she could spend sitting in front of her homework.

"Those were all manic episodes. Everything I felt was extremely amplified."

So she started making adjustments. She told her parents about her diagnosis and brought up the possibility of medication.

"My parents have always believed that mental issues aren't really a thing," she said. "My mom didn’t want me on medication. She told me to start exercising more."

She tried everything: spending time outside, physical activity, being alone, being with friends, filling her days. But when she was done, her symptoms would persist.

Because mental disorders don't go away with lifestyle adjustments – they are results of chemical imbalances, and sometimes it takes more than a workout to feel better.

"Some people have to deal with these things on a regular basis. It's not as simple as 'go exercise' or 'go distract yourself.' At the end of the day, it's still there."

That's the thing with mental health: so many people treat it as a temporary rut, a bad day, or a sign that you need more Vitamin D. It enables individuals with mental illness to downplay their symptoms and convince themselves that professional help is unnecessary. And that's when it becomes dangerous.

"College has been the most scary time for me, because it's the most lonely time," Klio said. "It's harder to think, 'If I wasn't here, how would people be affected?'"

She's struggled with suicidal thoughts for about 10 years now – it isn't new. But it's different in college.

"I'll feel like I just don’t want to do this anymore. Sometimes I don't want to be here. That's scary to me."

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. She’s not alone.

"But I don't want to have these thoughts – I know I should be here. It's not okay to be having those thoughts, and they're not healthy. Suicide is never the option. It's never productive. That's why I’ve gotten help, and I'm super excited for the rest of my journey."

Klio is among thousands of young adults who have thoughts like this, but most of them don't bring it up.

Think about this: According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, nearly 40 percent of college students surveyed said they'd "felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult for them to function." A whopping 61 percent reported "overwhelming anxiety." To top it off, the average age of onset for mental health issues is in one's early 20s. There are heaps of evidence that mental health problems are affecting the majority of college students.

So why can't we talk about it?

"I’m always worried about what people are going to think of me," Klio said.

Everybody wants to look strong. In the middle of a crisis, the last thing anybody wants is to be judged, misunderstood, or belittled. But unfortunately, it's a common experience.

"My sister has always been super supportive of me, but she doesn’t understand because she doesn't deal with it," Klio said. "You can really have genuine conversations with people who have dealt with it and who understand."

But it's impossible to find those people without opening up. When we talk about it, we normalize it. When it's normalized, it becomes easier to ask for help.

"Some of the most brilliant, famous people deal with mental health problems. I just think it needs to be emphasized that seeking help isn't a sign of weakness – it's a sign of strength."

That's what finally brought Klio to therapy.

"It was really, really good," she said. "At the end of the day there will always be situations where you have to seek out professionals. And it's OK."

She only recently started therapy but is already reaping the benefits.

And that's how it begins. All it takes is one step in the right direction to see how far you’ve come.

"I think of the times where I was really close to not being here," Klio said. "And that's what always propels me forward. I don't know what's to come or who's going to come into my life. But I know that I'm strong."

It took years for her to reach this point. It took hard work, persistence, and too many bad days to count. But with practice, she's learned to be self-aware and put herself first when needed. The bad days aren't going anywhere – but they don’t control her.

"I just breathe. I take deep breaths and pay attention to how it feels to calm myself down."

She's created a full arsenal of coping mechanisms: a drive in the mountains on a sunny day, watching the waves crash at the beach, being alone, spending time with her seven furry pets.

"Animals are so therapeutic for me – all they have to do is look at you, and you can't be sad. They're always happy to see me and they make me feel important."

But even if she does all the right things, mental illness doesn't just disappear.

"I've had a really hard time finding my happy place here," she said.
After struggling in her first year of college, she commuted to UCSB from Ventura for her second year. With nobody around to share her academic stress, her depression flared up again. She wasn’t motivated anymore.

"Every quarter my grades started slipping more and more. When you're depressed, it's hard to see the future because you're so focused on how you feel in the moment. I know I'm capable of being a very good student, and I wasn’t representing myself," she explained.

"So I decided to work on myself before I went back to school. What we do in college is very important, and I don't want to let this hold me back."

And she'll come back stronger than ever.

Because "pushing through" is not what defines strength when it comes to mental health. So many of us fight the same invisible battle each day and never know it. We find strength in showing ourselves compassion, encouraging each other, and celebrating our victories together.

Klio's story is one that many of us can relate to. Bipolar disorder, clinical depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental illnesses are more common than we think. As a community, it's up to us to eliminate the stigmas around mental health.

"The best thing you can do is listen," Klio said. "And for people who are struggling – don’t be scared to get help."

Mental illness is hard to talk about. It's hard to experience. It's hard to watch. But it's worth the fight.

"People who have to deal with mental health issues are some of the strongest people," Klio said. "You have so many internal factors that are trying to tell you that you can't do things or that you won't be anything. I'm proud of myself for overcoming those obstacles."

And that's what makes her smile so beautiful.

This article was originally published in WORD Magazine.

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About Cassidy Emenger

I'm Cassidy, a writer specializing in digital marketing & creative journalism. If you like my work, drop me a message. I live for collaboration.

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