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A special series by WUWM's Maayan Silver. Maayan's stories air each Tuesday, beginning September 21, during Morning Edition 6:45 a.m. and 8:45 a.m.

Marquette college freshman speaks up, addresses mental health during pandemic

Courtesy of Anya Ramos

Anya Ramos was a junior in high school when her school was shut down for the coronavirus pandemic and she never went back in-person.

“That took a toll on me because I am a very, very social person, a busybody,” Ramos said. “I feel like I really just thrive being around people — in-person. And so that switch was definitely very, very scary for me.”

Ramos remembers the first day of the pandemic shutdown on March 13, when she saw the news that the school would be closed two extra weeks for spring break.

“And I just panicked, because I was just like, wow, like two weeks," Ramos said. "And then, you know, it went on to 12 months plus, so that was crazy. And I just wasn't expecting that. And it was definitely a toll.”

Dealing with her growing mental health issues proved to be the hardest task. Ramos said throughout high school, she pushed it to the side by keeping busy, focusing on community service, school and leadership roles.

“And then when I had a moment to myself, I kind of realized, ‘Oh, there's a lot of stuff I need to work on for myself,’” Ramos said. “And it just kind of hit me all at once I found out I have intrusive thought OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder]. Well, it's just OCD, but I like to address it like that."

Ramos said usually, people associate obsessive-compulsive disorder with behaviors like excessive cleaning or organizing. But Ramos learned it's more irrational thinking – nothing to do with being clean.

“It's like, you know, it's really your worst fears and things that you don't want to become that manifest into something and you can't let go of that thought,” Ramos said. “And people who suffer from that just really feel like there's some things that are like very guilt-heavy type of thoughts, because you think ‘Oh, well, because I'm thinking this, it must be true.’ And so then you keep ruminating on it.”

She described it as anxiety-related. “So it's like a cycle of just like, anger, sadness, and then like real panic attack-inducing anxiety. And so, it can be very, very, very, very difficult to deal with.”

Because of the pandemic and because her school was virtual, Ramos had the time and capacity to go to virtual therapy and start to figure out what was going on. She said the pandemic made it more accessible for her to work on herself.

“If I was in a situation like I am right now, full-time in school, on campus, doing all the extracurricular activities and things like that, and you know, driving around, like coming back home at like, 8:30 at night like that, I just would not have been able to have the time," Ramos said. "I would have forced myself like I did in my earlier high school years to just not just not focus on it, like, ‘It's not an issue, because I have better things to do.’"

Maayan Silver's extended conversation with Anya Ramos.

Ramos said during the pandemic, many people became more focused on mental health — taking it seriously —because so many people were suffering. She said she was able to find more representation of mental health issues in the media.

“And that’s what really helped,” Ramos said. “Was just finding different people’s stories, the ways that they coped, the ways that they got better and the things that they did to work on themselves.”

Once Ramos figured things out for herself, she wanted to advocate. "And I was chosen to be [2021 Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee and Bally Sports Wisconsin State] Youth of the Year. And so I did my speech on mental health and talking about how things are not, you know, healing isn't linear ... spreading that message because I experienced it and I wanted to take my own advice."

Ramos finally felt comfortable enough to share her story with people. "And so I think, although like the pandemic really did change a lot for the negative, I think it also helped me in the positive because then I was able to help people all throughout the state."

Ramos came away with some wisdom from her experience. She learned healing is not going to be linear and it’s something to continually work on.

“There are times where you feel better and times where you don't,” Ramos said. “And I think that's something that I learned throughout the pandemic — that there's just bad days and good days. And sometimes those bad days really hit hard. And it's a good life lesson, I think. I learned a lot as a human being during this time.”

Ramos also realized it’s important not to look back so much — even though the past has shaped her.

“One thing that I do is I get really wound up in the past, especially if I'm in a bad place mentally,” she said. “And I'm like, ‘Oh, I could have done something different. Or I just wish I soaked up that moment more’ When, I mean, ruminating on that isn't really helpful.”

Ramos said what is helpful is focusing on building relationships: family, friends, anybody you hold close. She said she’s realized they’re more meaningful than possessions or pursuing success.

Maayan Silver is a WUWM news reporter.
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