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Makenna Theissen, Staff

My freshman year at the University of Kentucky was the lowest, most depressing point of my life.

Currently, as a senior in college attending a different university, I read news headlines about the recent deaths of two students on campus and feel again the same pain I had felt three years ago. Thinking to myself, “Wow, those headlines could have been about me. I didn’t realize that would have been the reaction if I had actually followed through with my thoughts.”

I really hope to God that other students, faculty, UK fans and alumni aren’t reading those headlines and just brushing it off. Those students definitely were not, and are not, alone. I am living proof that mental health on UK’s campus needs some adjustments.

As a student who was not affiliated with any Greek life or practiced any particular religion, it was extremely difficult to find friends and happiness in the Bluegrass state.

I came from a high school in south Jersey where I wasn’t a very popular girl, but I was very involved in sports and school clubs, such as the debate team and journalism club. I played for the number one high school field hockey team in the nation; I played field hockey year-round on a club team for five or six years as well. Along with that, I thought I had found my calling when I was enrolled in journalism my junior year and became editor-in-chief my senior year, where my staff’s paper won first place in the state for the first time ever. I went into college confidently, thinking I knew my calling and would succeed at the coolest college around.

At Kentucky, I studied journalism as well as equine science. I have always been reserved yet outgoing, and I did make friends around campus. I was part of clubs and attended parties. So why was I still lying in bed at two in the afternoon on a Saturday contemplating what was wrong with me and refusing to get out of bed to go eat or brush my teeth?

My first two weeks at UK were not overwhelming, but exciting. I had met so many people and campus was so big; I saw so much opportunity. I immediately became involved with the Kentucky Kernel and wrote articles. Turns out I was pretty good at it; I had at least three front page articles by the time winter break hit. Granted, I had to introduce myself to my Journalism 101 professor Buck Ryan on four different occasions, but I still felt as though I was succeeding. I had networked with many professionals and made friends in classes, and I went out to parties every once in a while. Something was still off. I still found myself sitting in my room watching Netflix while my roommate went out and socialized.

Being a washed-up athlete, I frequented the gym quite often to get my fix. I was nervous at first but eventually walked through the free weights downstairs like I owned the place, not intimidated by all of the buff, brawny guys who are constantly pumping iron. I tried to use the gym to rid of my depression and dark thoughts, sometimes going two or three times a day. As active as I was, as many events as I went to, as many friends as I made, I always felt alone.

I would make friends and meet people, get their contact info, and never see them again. I had friends in classes who would invite me out, but after a while who can you trust? The last time I recall hanging out with friends from class, I just remember riding in an Uber to some apartment somewhere, which was fine, but feeling a little uncomfortable because the friend I had made was a guy. He and another friend seemed to like me a lot and talked to me. We got along, but I don’t think we were on the same page. Everyone present then left the apartment to go to another, larger party. The second I walked in, I saw lines of meth on the coffee table, people everywhere, and I heard a puppy barking from somewhere—what turned out to be the kitchen. I made a beeline for the puppy cries, trying to get rid of the male figure who thought I was his “new friend.” After about five minutes of me evaluating my situation I walked all the way from some apartment complex across from Red Mile back to my dorm.

Pretty much every time I tried to go out and socialize that’s how it went. As the weather got colder I began to stay in my room more and more. It got to the point where I would only go to class, go to the gym, eat, sleep and some days not talking to anyone. Usually the gym would sweat me out of whatever funk I was in, but that stopped working eventually too. I would stay in my room, hiding, for days. Weekends were the worst because I had no job, no class, and I had no car to drive me away from my problems. I sat in my room for so many hours I think I unintentionally put myself in my own personal psych ward, isolating myself. I still went to classes, talked to friends, worked out. No one saw what was actually happening on the inside, and if they did, they didn’t understand how intense or serious my problems were. I picked up an extremely dangerous habit of drinking and things kept getting worse. No one understood how serious my drinking problem actually was, but that gave me the green light to keep abusing the bottle and not receive any backlash for it since drinking is a very normal thing for college students to do.

Spring semester, after going home for winter break, I picked up an internship at Keeneland and kept writing for the Kernel. Things still were not right. I still felt so alone; I didn’t want to go spend time with friends. I felt bad because even when I was spending time with friends I was counting the clock, watching when I would be able to go back to my room: my safe space where I could relax and breathe and not feel any anxiety. I knew this was a problem, so I reached out to UK’s mental health center. I don’t remember much, only that I used to pass the ROTC center on my walk to my group meetings. That was one thing I didn’t like, the group meeting. My first visit consisted of me sitting in front of a computer filling out a long survey about how I felt, then meeting with someone face to face, listening to them telling me I would be best in an anxiety group session. I was mentally weak and a little nervous to be in there so I agreed, even though group therapy sounded horrible. It was. I’m not the type of person to open up to people, even ones close to me. Going to my group sessions every Wednesday was helpful on a personal level; I learned “mindfulness” through the sessions and was very thankful for the resources and information they provided me through the group. Once it was over I still did not feel any real change. I still felt alone in a sea of students. I would cancel plans, not attend class, call in sick just because I physically couldn’t escape the solitude of my bed.

Some people did notice my behavioral changes throughout my year at Kentucky. My mom and step-dad visited with their two dogs. I asked to stay in their hotel with them and slept with the dogs on a pull-out couch. It was more comforting than my lonely room. My dad visited and brought my dog and little sister. It was a surprise and I tried to hide my tears from them when I picked up my dog and hugged her. I wish I had expressed my emotions more clearly to everyone now but I am lucky to still be here. Better late than never.

Reading these headlines about the deaths of students opened my eyes: I really am not alone. Even as a current senior in college I thought I was the only one who considered suicide while living on UK’s campus. These headlines would have been about me if I had reached that breaking point, which I came close to more times than I will ever admit.

Here is my advice to the University of Kentucky: Do not just say “you are not alone.” Give them resources other than some rickety old health center building that is at least a 30-minute walk away from majority of the on-campus housing. Provide more counselors to accommodate the mass amount of students you have. Ask them what type of service they would like instead of having students fill out some long online survey and placing them in a group therapy session. The way the University of Kentucky handles mental health needs to be made a priority and should be more accessible to students. It can be intimidating for depressed or anxious students to reach out for help, which is why it is so important for help to be easily accessible. Even when I did reach out as a UK student and agreed to group therapy, there were many days I would fake being sick just because I didn’t feel like walking all the way over there because it was drizzling outside. If the mental health center was closer to the dorms or had more accessible hours, more students might be inclined to seek out help and work through their problems.

I know, at the moment, only one of the two students’ recent deaths were confirmed suicide. I still stand behind both students’ deaths and cry out to the university that something should change. There is a group of students on campus who are silent yet struggling. No matter how involved someone is on campus or how many friends they have, anyone can struggle with a mental illness. There needs to be more accessible outlets for struggling students to seek out help, and it needs to happen now, before another student falls down the same dark and lonely path which I fell down, which Taylor Nolan and Sean Culley fell down, and which many other silent students fall down every year.

Morgan Lafferty is a former UK student who attended Uk during her freshman year, but transferred to a smaller university. She is now a senior and submitted this op-ed to the Kernel for publication. 

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