ental Health Is Important
I speak openly about my own mental health journey because I think it’s important. A lot of people struggle with mental health challenges, whether anxiety, or depression, or suicidal thoughts. Yet people don’t feel safe talking about it and having mental health conversations, especially at places like Princeton. I didn’t realize how much I needed and could benefit from counseling until I started during my gap year.
My name is Rachel Yee, and I’m from Eastampton, New Jersey. I’m a sociology major at Princeton University, and I’m also the current student body president. My ideal day would include good food, time at the beach relaxing with friends, and dancing--I love bringing people together. I’ve also had my own journey with mental health and found counseling and support that have helped me grow through the process.
First Exposure to Mental Health Challenges
I grew up in Eastampton, a small town in the southern part of New Jersey. My parents immigrated to New York City from Hong Kong as children, and worked hard to create a life and family for me and my siblings. I was involved in a lot of activities growing up, from ballet to piano to competitive fencing, many of which I loved. Growing up in Chinese culture, there’s a focus on “saving face”. This added to the pressure I experienced, since I never had a way to express or process what I was experiencing.
Middle school was hard for me, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I felt a lot of stress and frustration to the point where the thought of living seemed more painful than the thought of dying. Things got much better when I moved on to high school, but I never dealt with these thoughts and feelings.
During my sophomore year of high school, a friend of mine who was incredibly charismatic and energetic suddenly took his own life. There hadn’t been outward signs, and it shocked those of us around him. His death also triggered thoughts of ending my own life when I went through some difficulties during that summer. It was the first time I remember consciously thinking about mental health, and how it could affect others or myself.
Related: Finding My Heart’s Voice to Overcome Panic Attacks: Rhodalynn’s Story
After graduating from high school, I enrolled at Princeton University. My freshman year was a whirlwind. I got involved in a lot of activities, trying to find a way to distract myself from the pain I felt inside. My self-esteem was tied to how others saw me because I didn’t know how to value myself. I did not like how it seemed like I had to be more self-centered in my life in order to be accepted and succeed. There was always another box to check and mark to achieve, and I didn’t know how to have self-acceptance.
Unknown, Unexpected Needs
During the summer after my freshman year, a situation developed in my family that inspired my decision to very suddenly to take a year off before my sophomore year of college. I needed to prioritize family first. Because of what my family was going through, a mentor of mine suggested that I see a counselor for myself. For the first time, I really started to unpack my experiences with my own mental health. I discovered that I didn’t really like myself. Parts of my childhood that I had blocked out -- including some of the middle school experiences, like writing a 10-page suicide letter -- started to suddenly come back when they were triggered by finding the item associated with the memory.
Before this process, I didn’t think or know that I had trauma, because I couldn’t point to what I would have called a traumatic event. But trauma-focused counseling helped me unpack the pain, stress, and anxiety that I lived with. I had accepted it all as a normal part of my everyday existence. In these sessions, I would write down observations about things that happened. Then I would be able to recognize the emotions that I had experienced, and start the healing process. I was able to connect emotionally in a way that I hadn’t before. After not being able to cry for over four years, I began to be able to express my emotions.
Finding Purpose in Helping Others
The gap year, intended to help my family, ended up greatly changing the trajectory of my life. I began to value deep connections in a way that I hadn’t before. I rediscovered the joy in being able to help others pursue their dreams. My parents wanted me to gain “real working experience” to understand the value of hard work -- not just a cushy college internship -- so I got a job at Staples. One of my co-workers there became a close friend, she’s a total boss. I was able to help her apply for community college and move forward toward her dream of becoming a nurse. The experience brought a greater gratitude for the opportunities that I had. It also increased my passion to help others access opportunities to pursue their own dreams.
Mental Health Conversations in College
Coming back to Princeton, I began to implement more consistent check-ins with my own mental and emotional health. Now a rising senior, it continues to be a journey, particularly in an environment where there can still be a lot of pressure and opportunities to do so many things are never-ending and seemingly at all once.
During my gap year, I rediscovered my faith. This continues to be an integral part of my healing and wellness process. I decided to run for student body president so I could be in a position where I could help others access the healing that I was able to receive. On campus, I’ve been able to advocate from my position for greater awareness and resources for mental health. I’m grateful for the opportunity to help improve things in small ways for larger groups of people through policy and resource improvements on our campus.
Even more personally meaningful to me are the mental health conversations with individuals. These are opportunities to talk deeply with someone who has struggled and overcome similar challenges. I’ve shared very openly about my journey, and have had several friends and classmates approach me and share about their own struggles. It’s an honor to be able to help and support them in any way I can. I often encourage people to take time to stop and get help, instead of trying to just power through alone. If you even feel the slightest need to talk to someone about what you’re experiencing, do it, even if you’re not sure. Talking through life issues and relationships and other experiences are so helpful for personal growth. You don’t have to have dramatic past experiences or a major issue to talk to someone. Begin the journey today. You may discover more than you think.