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On campus, going public with private battles

The week before her column was to appear in the student newspaper at Pennsylvania State University, Caroline Crasnick warned her parents:

Caroline Crasnick has received mostly positive feedback after writing in Penn State's paper of her mental-health struggles.
Caroline Crasnick has received mostly positive feedback after writing in Penn State's paper of her mental-health struggles.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

The week before her column was to appear in the student newspaper at Pennsylvania State University, Caroline Crasnick warned her parents:

"Be prepared."

The 20-year-old media-studies major from Langhorne was about to lay bare for the University Park campus - and the Internet world - her battle with mental illness.

She described being "curled up on the cold linoleum" floor of her State College apartment one autumn evening her sophomore year and thinking: "The world would be better off if I were dead."

"I was seriously considering suicide."

Her parents knew that their daughter, a spirited honey redhead with a witty flair, suffered from depression, but not that it had reached that degree.

"That was tough," said her father, Jerry Crasnick, a senior baseball writer for ESPN who had lost a close relative to suicide when he was 12.

Crasnick told readers in her Sept. 10 column for the Daily Collegian that she has a mild form of bipolar disorder, which causes mood swings, and that she had since learned to cope - a message she hoped would encourage other students who were struggling silently.

It was her reason for writing the column.

"You have to make the conscious decision to survive, for yourself. You have a future. You have value. You're loved. No matter how bad today is, there's always tomorrow."

Her parents' initial trepidation over their daughter's exposing herself to what can be a cruel world faded. They were proud.

"Her willingness to tackle the really sensitive, personal, difficult topics was amazing to me," her father said.

Crasnick, experts say, is among a growing number of students who are going public with struggles once kept private. The change, they say, comes as a generation raised on social media and reality television feels more comfortable sharing intimate details.

In September, a Temple University lacrosse player wrote about her eating disorder, something she had long hidden. Kara Stroup, a psychology major from Garnet Valley, said she had thoughts of suicide and landed in the ER.

"Even with the great life I had, the many people who loved and supported me, and a bright future, my brain told me that I wanted to die," she wrote. ". . . Today, I feel responsible to speak out about my personal journey with the goal to provide someone out there with some hope to hold onto."

Her piece was the most viewed ever on Owl Sports, the official website of Temple athletics.

Last year, a Penn State student recounted in a column for the Collegian being "groomed" and abused by her high school English teacher. A Swarthmore student wrote for her student newspaper in 2013 about her sexual assault.

These disclosures coincide with increased activism on campuses, as students press for better handling of sexual assaults and improving mental-health services.

"It's a pretty brave thing for a student to do, especially students putting their names to this," said Kelley Callaway, president of the national College Media Association and director of student publications at Rice University in Houston.

Students, she cautioned, must think carefully before opening up: "It's not always going to result in positive comments."

Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist and medical director for the Jed Foundation, a New York-based suicide-prevention group aimed at college students, warned that such disclosures could hurt chances with future employers.

"The other side of the coin," he said, "is that it's clearly very helpful to see that there are people out there with serious mental-health conditions who are functioning, living full lives, staying on track, and doing well."

Marie Hardin, dean of Penn State's college of communications, said she's proud of the Collegian - and Crasnick - for fostering discussion on such important issues.

She doubts Crasnick will face repercussions.

"If you look at her entire body of work, you can see an incredibly strong and resilient young woman," she said. "Any employer . . . would see that."

Crasnick told readers she has experienced mood swings since childhood.

"I distinctly remember one day in school when I started to laugh hysterically, and began to cry moments later."

Her parents got her treatment fairly early, she said, and she's been on medication. The Neshaminy High graduate didn't expect to attend Penn State. She applied when the school was reeling from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and visited on a dreary, 10-degree day when she had an awful cold.

"I had the time of my life. It was just this feeling of being like you're home."

She joined the student newspaper shortly after she arrived and became a columnist last fall. After her serious bout with depression that led to that night in her apartment, she said, she recovered and became more confident in her ability to cope. She wanted to help others.

The editors at the Collegian embraced the idea.

"We thought it was a really important story for her to tell because she is not alone at Penn State," said top editor Shannon Sweeney, 22. "I know others who have suffered."

Crasnick was determined, but scared. She woke up at 10 a.m. the day the column appeared.

The story had already been shared about 50 times on social media. Her phone was filled with encouraging calls and texts from friends: "Everyone was so unbelievably supportive," she said.

It gave her courage to write more.

In November, she described a sexual assault her freshman year by a male whose room she went to after a party.

Her intent was not to blame the university - she never reported the assault - or confront her attacker. She didn't identify him.

Her point? It was traumatic, and trauma takes time to heal, more time for some people than others, she wrote.

"Whether it's been two years or 10 years, as long as you're doing your very best to recover and take care of yourself, you have to understand that grieving leaves inevitable difficulties in our lives. We can't always put things behind us immediately."

That column was the only one her mother, Debbie, a teacher, wished she hadn't written.

"I just felt it was way too personal," she said.

But she's happy her daughter's writing is helping others. Both Crasnicks shared their daughter's mental-health piece on Facebook. Debbie got calls from her friends, who began telling their stories.

"My son."

"My daughter."

"My niece."

The kudos rolled in.

"I can't thank you enough for publishing that because it is always nice to know you aren't alone," a reader wrote.

Crasnick was amazed.

"I was helping people just by doing something I love," she said.

After talking with Crasnick, Paulina Cajigal, 21, a senior from Bloomingdale, Ill., chronicled her mental-health struggles in the Daily Collegian.

"She reassured me that this is something that people should read," she said.

Cajigal, the news editor, also found that Crasnick's piece helped others - and herself. She hung the clipping above her bed.

"I look at it every day. It reminds me that things are good now," she said.

Crasnick knows her illness won't disappear, but she has learned to recognize and adjust to her patterns. She told readers almost a year after contemplating suicide, she found happiness in everyday pleasures - and they can, too.

"Someday, you'll find yourself eating your favorite bowl of cereal, watching one of your favorite movies, waiting for your friends to come over. And words can't express how good that feels."