Photo by Andrea Delgado

Like a lot of college freshmen, Andrea Delgado is worried about starting school. But while some students become stressed over the prospect of leaving home or taking on a heavy workload, one of Delgado’s main concerns is that she’ll have to navigate her depression alone.

“I think college is going to be like a roller coaster,” she says. “I just started school and I worry that I need to make friends and I need to hang out with people … No one cares if you’re alone or not. It’s not like high school.”

In Delgado’s case, loneliness is made worse by her long struggle with depression and mental illness.

There’s a history of mental illness in her family, she says, but she was still blindsided when she was diagnosed with depression.

“I was shocked. I didn’t know what depression was,” she says. “I thought I just felt sad. But [I learned] there is a big difference between depression and sadness. Depression is deeper and more prolonged.”

She was overwhelmed by problems at home and she began cutting herself. She also had episodes of psychosis, she says — there were voices in her head telling her to hurt herself by doing things like banging her head against a wall.

“Back then, I thought self-harm was the easiest way to get rid of my pain. I would listen to the voices when I was at my lowest points, when nobody was there to protect me or support me and I was home alone and I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she says.

During her final year in high school, Delgado says she was enrolled in an educational program for emotionally disturbed individuals on the recommendation of her therapist. The program had fewer than 10 students. She was able to graduate and is now at Pierce.

Now that she’s in college, she’s having trouble adjusting to a bigger and more crowded campus with larger classes than what she’s used to. When social interactions become too overwhelming, she says, she tends to keep to herself.

“[Sometimes] I isolate myself because I feel insecure and I don’t want to push my depression onto other people,”

According to Dr. Niaz Khani, Pierce Health Center’s licensed clinical psychologist, social isolation can cause long-term negative health effects.

“Social isolation is when people withdraw from the world,” says Khani. “They don’t want to talk to anybody. They don’t want to see anybody. They are pulling away, crawling into a shell and staying there.”

“It’s very lonely,” she says. “If someone is feeling a bit depressed and they isolate, it just makes it worse for them.”

Delgado says she feels shame over having a hard time connecting with people. “I feel kind of worthless because I don’t have the courage to talk to people,” she says.

“I’ve pushed people away and I’ve lost some friendships,” she says. “I’ve felt like I have to apologize for myself.”

Khani encourages students who are feeling isolated to reach out to the Pierce Health Center, which offers both individual and group therapy.

“We work on students’ self-confidence. We figure out who they are, what they want, and we find hope,” says Khani. “We practice skill-building and teach them how to go out there and meet people.”

Group therapy has worked for Delgado in the past.

“Group therapy helps people see that they are not alone in the world,” Delgado says. “There are other people dealing with issues similar to mine.”

Despite her obstacles, Delgado is hopeful. Though depression does not have many positive aspects, she sees her suffering as a learning experience and as a useful tool for her future. She plans to become either a marriage and family therapist or a psychiatrist.

“I understand what [depression] feels like because I’ve been through it,” she says. “I understand how people feel and why they do certain things. I want to help people. I want to give them advice and be there to listen.”

She’s still worried about school. She’s not sure she’ll be able to get the grades she wants because of the combined mental toll of depression and academic stress.

But ultimately she thinks that her struggle with depression has made her stronger mentally.

“It’s made me a warrior of my own battles. It’s made me realize a lot of things about myself,” she says. “Okay, I have depression. But I can support myself. I am my own support group. I can do this. I can make it. You just have to fight back.”