Learning to cope: College student shares his mental health journey

Aug 9, 2019

For Nelson Clark, the battle with mental illness came in his early days of college.

Historically, mental health has never been the topic of prominent discussion in minority communities. For men of color like Clark, mental illness has been difficult to express. They couldn’t understand what they were feeling. Opening up to a loved one or a friend wasn’t an option. They were afraid that others would think of them as weak or sensitive. But in recent years, the discussion of mental illness has surfaced in schools, workplaces and institutions in communities of color.

In 2012, Clark was attending Cleveland State University. Early in his spring semester, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American teen, was fatally shot in Florida, sparking protests and anger in communities of color. Clark didn’t understand why young men who looked like him were being treated with hate.

At small gatherings on campus, Clark didn’t feel safe. He always felt like there was someone out to get him. Students gave him looks and were short with him. He just wanted to feel like part of their community.

“I wasn’t going to leave there alive in the sense of the old me, the old way of me doing stuff, the old thoughts and the old pain. All of that stuff that was going to stay in Cleveland,” Clark said.

Clark wanted to understand the way he felt. He read books and talked to his peers, but felt like no one understood him. The more he dug for information, the more he lost sight of who he was and where he belonged.

In December that year, Clark went to his friend’s apartment on campus to relax and smoke marijuana. It was a friend Clark felt he could confide in. When he arrived at the apartment, a gut feeling that told him to go home. He stayed anyway.

Back at his dorm later that night, Clark’s roommate had to call campus police. Clark could not move or speak. The marijuana his friend had given him had been laced with an unknown substance. Once Clark was able to speak, he was reluctant to go with the police. All the things he had read and heard about law enforcement frightened him. He lashed out verbally and police had to remove him by force.

Clark was infuriated and angry. He felt like one of the only friends he could trust had betrayed him, leaving him more alone than ever.

Clark’s mother admitted him into BryLin Hospital’s Mental Health Care Center in Buffalo. She thought it was the best thing for him. Clark didn’t agree until after his first few days there. He remembers dinnertime at the center which, to him, summed up the experience.

“We would eat and everybody would help each other with their food. People would make plates for other patients, and it would get to the point where the last person was helping out so many people they never got food on their own plate,” Clark said.

“The experience was very different, but very eye-opening to me,” Clark said. “A lot of the patients there are very caring and they put people before themselves. That caused their pain.”

Credit Nelson Clark

Clark was released less than two months later after being diagnosed with drug-induced psychosis. He still struggled with depression and anxiety but had learned how to cope with them.

He didn’t speak much, but he wrote in a journal for reflection. He would write down all the things he was grateful for and why life wasn’t so bad.

“It took me about two to three years to really talk about it and articulate it comfortably without losing an appetite or not stop midway through the story and not know how to say certain things. It was a process of me regaining my mind and my ability to communicate,” Clark recalled.

From 2013 to 2014 Clark went to the University of Buffalo in hopes of getting back on track. But he found it difficult to focus and took a break for two years before trying again.

Clark began to talk about what he felt and asked questions about coping with racism, discrimination, and oppression. He found the answers he couldn’t find in books could be found in the words of his elders – African American professors, ministers, and others who had suffered and dealt with the struggles of life as men of color for years. They shared their experiences and advice, helping Clark learn to function.

Now, at the age of 25, Clark is a rising senior at the State University of New York at Fredonia, majoring in Middle Childhood Education and specializing in Math. He is a Residential Assistant at one of the school’s dorms, and serves on multiple student executive boards.

“I put myself in mentorship positions and I create an accessibility to me for anybody that needs any type of mentorship or just a little bit of advice to help them get through whatever situation they’re going through,” Clark said.

Clark isn’t letting his battle with mental health issues stop him from enjoying life. This past summer, he was granted the opportunity to be a music production intern in Cape Town, South Africa. He helped with the production of music and learned more about African American culture and heritage. It helped him understand himself and the world a little better.

“The situation that black people here [in America] go through, it's not an isolated thing. There is still oppression and systematic racism in Cape Town.” Clark said.

“We don’t understand every thought that pops into our head is not always created by us. We have so many influences from social media, from TV, all these...ideas in our head of what to eat, what to do, you should go to school and you need to get a better job, get this new car. It’s like, ‘No. What do I need?” Clark said.

Through his ongoing mental health journey, Clark uses what he has learned and experienced as motivation, and strives to become successful.

“I hope my story reaches everyone that needs it,” Clark said. “Everyone has to start putting themselves first.”