‘It’s happening again’: A UNC student shares her struggles with mental health on campus

·8 min read

Ozzy showed up at my door for the first time on Oct. 11. My roommate Violet sent a photo of him sitting there on our front porch.

Quiet, satisfied, unable to communicate what, if anything, he needed.

Now, I don’t particularly like cats. I have a dog, Buddy, at home who I love more than the world, and something about cats always felt off to me. But this one was adorable.

A tabby with bright green eyes, who turned out his paws like a ballerina when he sat down and wasn’t afraid of humans.

I remember hoping that him — or her, I truly have no idea — stopping by our door was a good omen of better things to come.

I felt too many things

The previous night, I had been crying the kind of heaving sobs that echo throughout a house. Violet came up to my room to talk with me, but I wasn’t really able to talk. I felt too many things, was thinking about too much and truly had no words to describe the swirling sensation of grief and fear.

The weekend of Oct. 10, a student died by suicide at UNC. Police logs show that there were three suicides and one attempt since Sept. 4. I remember feeling frozen. The whole campus felt frozen. The rumors started swirling Saturday morning.

UNC canceled classes Tuesday, Oct. 12 after student leaders advocated for a Wellness Day to offer the campus time to grieve and seek support in the aftermath of recent student deaths by suicide.
UNC canceled classes Tuesday, Oct. 12 after student leaders advocated for a Wellness Day to offer the campus time to grieve and seek support in the aftermath of recent student deaths by suicide.

How to report this tragic news

As an editor at the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, I started getting messages in the breaking news Slack channel from staff writers. What was going on? Was it true?

Our goal as reporters was to report what we knew. But this was information that no one would want to truly find out.

I wasn’t needed during the main reporting, so I turned off my phone. I stayed home from the football game that afternoon. I started seeing messages on social media with links to resources, phone numbers, telling me I was loved.

I started to get the dreadful feeling like a sinkhole in my stomach. I thought, “It’s happening again.”

And I was terrified.

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Maddie Ellis’ struggles with mental health started her junior year at UNC. Virtual therapy helped some, but eventually a negative experience led her to quit going.
Maddie Ellis’ struggles with mental health started her junior year at UNC. Virtual therapy helped some, but eventually a negative experience led her to quit going.

Quarantined, stressed and overextended

My struggles with mental health started my junior year of college. I was confined to my apartment room for school, work and social events. I was starting a new job as the university desk editor for The Daily Tar Heel, and immediately, the year was almost impossible to manage.

I was finishing up an internship with CharlotteFive when a letter from the Orange County Health Department leaked, warning UNC not to reopen dorms at full capacity due to COVID-19 concerns. That day, I had to drop everything to cover this news. Later that week, UNC released its sexual assault records, revealing that only 15 students had received any disciplinary action in over 13 years.

A few weeks later, a disastrous campus reopening plan saw students sent home just one week later. This university was exhausting. And covering the rapid flow of news was difficult.

For an entire semester, I felt like I was just playing catch-up. Each day, something went wrong. I was expected to lead over 50 staff writers, handle every piece of breaking news and somehow function as a student.

Every day, I failed at something. Because of the pressure I put on myself, that wasn’t acceptable. I cried almost every day. But I refused to admit that something might be seriously wrong. Instead, I convinced myself that it was just part of the job that I had worked so hard to get.

Fight, flight — or freeze

I didn’t realize how precarious my situation was until a late night FaceTime with one of my best friends from high school. She called me while I was mid-cry. I talked about how I felt incapable of doing anything, paralyzed by the fear of doing something wrong. In the face of a stressor, humans are well-known to act between fight or flight. But there is a third option: freeze. I had been frozen for months.

She said: “I’ve never been more worried about someone than I am about you.”

I didn’t realize how out of character I had been acting, and how concerning it was to my friends and family. After my mom said something similar — ”I think you should talk to someone” — I actually picked up the phone and called Counseling and Psychological Services at UNC, known as CAPS.

Asking for help

I dialed the phone sitting in my bath tub because it was the most remote spot in my apartment, and I didn’t want my roommates to hear me. The person at the other end of the phone line asked screening questions about my mood, my emotions, and any intrusive and scary thoughts that I had been having — and admitting it all out loud was terrifying. It gave these thoughts and feelings power. All the emotions I had pushed down and ignored were now out in the open for analysis and validation.

I had my first virtual therapy appointment in November. It had taken me an entire semester to work up the courage to take even that step. The first session, I just cried. I couldn’t verbalize any of my thoughts. I just felt them all.

The next few sessions were better. I learned a language to describe some of the anxiety that would build up after every mistake: catastrophizing. My thoughts would spiral out of control until the original stressor was far out of sight, and I had accepted a worst-case scenario as absolute fact.

‘Like I could take a deep breath again’

Finals came and went, and with a month-long break from the workload of the student paper and the original stressors gone, I felt lighter. Happier. Like I could take a deep breath again and fill every square inch of my lungs.

So when I had my next therapy appointment, I didn’t have much stress to share. Rather, I wanted to talk more about why I found my work so stressful. Why I couldn’t cope with the everyday stresses of college. Why I always froze. But as I gave relatively cheerful, optimistic reports, I remember the therapist assigned to me instead saying: “It sounds like you don’t really need to talk today.”

I remember thinking all my worst fears had been confirmed. I was dramatic. It wasn’t that serious. There are people who have it much worse than I do. I don’t need this kind of intervention. My smile fell, and I remember feeling so … silly. I couldn’t even remember why I had felt the need to call CAPS in the first place.

So I never went back.

Find something to hold onto

And it’s weeks like this past one where I really wish my first experience with therapy hadn’t gone as poorly as it did.

There are so many resources out there for college students, and I know many students who had much better experiences with the services than I did.

But I do know that there are also many students with negative experiences like mine. And in the face of a mental health crisis on campus, I hope everyone finds something to hold on to.

For me, one thing is this cat, who I chose to call Ozzy after one of my favorite “Survivor” contestants, Ozzy Lusth. This cat wandered onto my front porch the morning after one of the most upsetting and scary nights that I’ve had so far this semester. And he kept coming back.

A stray cat dubbed Ozzy that appeared on Maddie Ellis’ doorstep after a particularly tough mental health moment has given her a source of stress relief.
A stray cat dubbed Ozzy that appeared on Maddie Ellis’ doorstep after a particularly tough mental health moment has given her a source of stress relief.

I ran into a cat every day that week. A small black kitten walked up to me and nuzzled against my leg as I walked to the bus. A big white cat sits under the cars at the end of my street. Then Ozzy, who to this day comes to our porch every morning.

I wish he could tell me what he needs. I gradually started letting him approach me, petting him as he feels comfortable. I bought the cheapest cat food I could find at Harris Teeter and left out a bowl full next to a cup of water.

I don’t know what will happen next with Ozzy, just like how I don’t really know how I will feel each day. Some moments feel more dire than others, and I’m constantly wavering from feeling like everything will pan out and get done and feeling like I’m drowning in tasks, events and regrets.

What I do know is that this big-eyed, potentially flea-ridden cat has given me something that makes me want to jump out of bed in the morning.

For now.

For college students and others trying to get through the everyday stressors of life, I hope we all find at least one thing. Something that feels beautiful and perfect, even if only for a moment. Something that makes you see everything in front of you so clearly for a second. Something that lifts the soul up and lightens the burdens that weigh you down.

Look for the Ozzys just waiting at your front door.

Amid a mental health struggle, Maddie Ellis suggests finding something that helps lift you up. For her, it’s been a cat named Ozzy that visits her doorstep.
Amid a mental health struggle, Maddie Ellis suggests finding something that helps lift you up. For her, it’s been a cat named Ozzy that visits her doorstep.

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