BY REBECCA HEILWEIL, editor-in-chief
In his “100 Love Sonnets,” Pablo Neruda wrote, “I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.” In a wildly separate realm, Taylor Swift, in her hit song “Red,” proclaims, “Losing him was blue like I’d never known, missing him was dark grey all alone, forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you never met, but loving him was red.”
Despite their vastly different intended audiences, Neruda and Swift both speak about the same, colorful human experience: love. Yet young people seem to believe romance and its complications are unimportant, especially regarding mental and emotional health.
Recently, I co-founded an online mental health awareness magazine called Beautiful Minds, dedicated to sharing and disseminating young adults’ narratives of mental health.
As I began reading submissions, collecting essays and conversing over coffees, I observed that love had a profoundly underrepresented relationship to mental health. So many of our writers felt compelled to talk about their romantic experiences, yet simultaneously awkward about it. Their experiences couldn’t be mental health issues; they were just being emotional.
Yet, it’s always on our minds.
This trend seems especially prevalent in young people. Our feelings manifest diversely and across the spectrums of gender and sexuality: unrequited and reciprocated, sexually and romantically, proximate and long-distance. But as young people, we think we’re not supposed to care. To do so is naive and weak; we’re supposed to have other, “real” problems.
I can empathize; I remember how silly and stupid I felt, telling a counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services how shaken I was after a break-up. I was another broken-hearted freshman girl, and I needed to get over myself.
But our reactions can be strong, and emotionally dislocating. This is especially true if you’re prone to mental illness.
And this disdain for looking at love as a valid potential mental and emotional health challenge just doesn’t add up. According to the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on addressing the mental health of young people, “approximately half of all suicides among 18 to 24 years olds are preceded by a relationship problem or break-up.”
The Wall Street Journal recently looked at the science analyzing the links between love and mental health, and found that the brain — and even the rest of the body — has a clear physical and chemical response to a break-up. We can look at serotonin and dopamine, for instance, and see clear effects.
One interviewed doctor noted, on the topic of break-ups, “You’re feeling intense romantic love, you’re willing to take big risks, you’re in physical pain, obsessively thinking about a person and you’re struggling to control your rage. You’re not operating with your full range of cognitive abilities. It’s possible that part of the rational mind shuts down.”
Many of these studies also found that relationships can be incredibly good for mental health as well.
So many stories I’ve encountered began with falling in love, a break-up, the beginning of a long-distance transition or a significant change in relationship status. In many ways, we grieve, yet we don’t think these reactions are rational enough to grant authority.
Scientifically, however, it makes complete sense. Love needs to be discussed.
College students, especially those at stress-inducing institutions, seem to feel guilty about the intensity to which love can affect their mental and emotional health.
Ambitious students are not supposed to be symbiotic; rather, we’re accomplished and independent.
But we’re also young, and we’re experiencing so many of our firsts. First loves and first times, first random hook-ups and first break-ups. This is the age of “it’s complicated.” We’re coming out, moving out and everything in between.
While we can be simultaneously intellectual and preprofessional, we’re often unsympathetic to romance. This is inane, considering its power.
Neruda and Swift are popular because they admit to their romantic vulnerability. Love is allowed to be a colorful and impactful part of our experience. We shouldn’t feel so uncomfortable admitting that.
Rebecca Heilweil is a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the editor-in-chief of Beautiful Minds Magazine. Photography by Rebecca Heilweil. The original version of this piece appeared in the Daily Pennsylvanian on July 23, 2015.