I am now more than two years out of higher education, graduating from college in 2014 and from pharmacy school in 2018. They say time flies when you are having fun, but that could not be further from my truth.
Higher education always felt unnecessarily overwhelming and stressful for me, as it felt relentlessly saturated with coursework, extracurriculars, and exams. While these are expected, I do feel that the rapid pace of the collegiate lifestyle played a prominent role in the diagnoses of my multiple mental illnesses.
I began developing insomnia once I started college, since I was living in a dorm during the first two years. I did not have the liberty to stay up as late as I wanted during grade school, so living in a dorm was a huge adjustment due to a lack of structure. During college, I majored in psychology and was involved in my college’s chapter of Active Minds, a mental health advocacy and awareness group.
My involvement in Active Minds was very fulfilling and I met amazing fellow mental health advocates. However, I did not yet have the courage to seek professional help during my college career. In retrospect, this was paradoxical because I was heavily involved with awareness events connecting students to local and campus mental health resources. Perhaps I was developing an unjust self-stigma against seeking professional help, likely because I was on track to enroll in a professional healthcare degree program right after college.
During pharmacy school, my moods were often labile and swinging. During the first year of pharmacy school, I struggled to make time for basic things such as grocery shopping and cooking. Meal planning and obtaining food has always been complicated for me because I am a lifelong vegetarian, but not by choice. I was raised in a Hindu household and the majority of my family members are strict vegetarians. I mention this because I often get triggered in social situations when meals or catering are involved, and I am unable to eat due to a lack of vegetarian options.
While I have tried bits of meat on occasion growing up (often by accident) my mind and body would be unable to properly digest meat. In other words, I do not know that I could ever eat meat unless it was absolutely necessary in a dire situation for survival. I am effectively meat-intolerant, although I don’t know if that’s a legitimate term. Overall, my forced vegetarianism has insidious implications on my ability to comfortably attend various networking events and social events.
School became stressful not only because of the academic demands and lack of food options, but also because I had to deal with not having a “common” name. My name means “vicarious joy” in Sanskrit, and I am proud and thankful to have it. However, this often made me self-conscious during the cold-calling portions of pharmacy school where professors randomly call on students to answer questions. Unfortunately, some professors would let out sighs of relief in response to encountering common names on their list for the day. This nuance often added to my anxiety during pharmacy school because answering technical questions in front of a large group for a grade is already difficult at baseline. My first job during pharmacy school was working as a pharmacy technician at a local grocery store, and I was unjustly scrutinized about my beard by one of the managerial associates of the grocery store. The PharmD curriculum did not prepare students for these kinds of situations, so I learned that I need to be steadfast in advocating for myself.
The bulk of my mental health exacerbations occurred in the fall of 2016, when I was diagnosed with anxiety and then bipolar disorder. I was prescribed sertraline to treat anxiety before the start of that school year, and I later experienced an adverse effect — mania. My manic episode lasted about five weeks, not counting the few weeks after I stopped the medicine and experienced withdrawal. My manic episode and its associated triggers largely coincided with the 2016 election, as it pertained to the unfortunate success of Trump. While manic, I slept very few hours per night, and I was constantly agitated.
My manic episode eventually resolved weeks after stopping sertraline, but my family and my providers struggled to reach agreements on a compatible treatment plan mainly due to cultural differences. Growing up in an Indian household, mental health is rarely talked about and I felt that stoicism was a higher priority than vulnerability. Thankfully, my family and my providers agreed on an appropriate treatment plan, so I was able to resume and complete my PharmD program. Ultimately, attending to my mental health was a turbulent experience as a student, but I have learned that advocating for my needs is the best way to ensure both my wellness and success.
To learn about South Asian mental health support, visit MannMukti.