In the middle of my sophomore year during the fall 2008 semester, I was diagnosed with major depression. During the course of the next semester, I did everything I could to relieve my depression, from exercise to therapy. But despite all this I felt progressively worse. Life seemed hopeless and meaningless. I had no energy, frequent crying spells, and I couldn’t concentrate in lecture or study for my classes.
By the end of the year, I was failing my classes. My college advisor suggested that I take the next semester off. At the time, I was so opposed to this idea that I refused to even consider it. I refused to believe that I was unable to handle school as well as I could before. I was in denial that my depression was causing me to do poorly in school. I felt that I would be giving up if I took a year off. However, denial wasn’t the only reason that I resisted taking a year off. Believing that I must graduate “on time,” I could not accept any alternative. Taking time off also meant leaving my friends and possibly not graduating with them. I feared that I would appear a failure to my parents and peers.
The process of taking time off is actually very easy. There are few academic and financial consequences, and readmission is not competitive. Once you are accepted into Cal, you can take a “leave of absence” and return at any time, even years later. If you choose to take a break from the next semester, you can do so by cancelling your registration with a mouse click on Tele-BEARS before the start of instruction. There will be no record of the cancellation on your transcript and all of your fees will be refunded. You can choose to cancel your registration or withdraw for any reason — the reason is confidential and will not appear on your transcript. To withdraw in the middle of the semester, however, you need to see a college advisor. If you do so, your transcript will not reflect any coursework, and will only indicate a withdrawal for that semester.
In the fall of 2009, I told my parents that I was deciding to stay home for the semester. Luckily, they were supportive of my decision. During my year off, I stayed with my parents in San Diego and worked on recovering from my depression.
I saw a therapist and attended an outpatient program at a hospital; I took classes, which were cheaper and less stressful, at a local community college and UCSD to satisfy some Berkeley requirements; I worked as a math tutor; I learned to meditate.
As a result of these experiences I gained a clearer idea of my goals and what I wanted to do with my life. I changed my major from philosophy to sociology, which I love. I was able to focus my time and energy on projects that I found meaningful. I put life into perspective and worried less about what did not matter.
In the summer of 2010, I recovered from my depression and returned to Berkeley in the fall. The process of readmission was easy because the readmission system, unlike the admission process, is not competitive. The readmission application is short and is mostly a formality. In general, if you are in good academic standing and apply by the deadline, you will be readmitted.
In retrospect, taking time off was the right decision for me. During my time off, I got a lot healthier because I had time to really focus on dealing with my illness. The semester I returned was my most successful. The time off allowed me to focus on getting treatment for my depression, take a break off from school, experience the “real world” and, most importantly, recover. Although I am graduating from Berkeley a semester later than I had planned, I am actually graduating “early” in three and a half years because I took classes during my time off. My only regrets were not withdrawing sooner and being too hard on myself. Withdrawing seemed like a much bigger deal before I did it but much smaller afterward. Because the reasons for taking time off vary widely, talk to an adviser to recommend the best option.
Daniel Bessonov is a UC Berkeley alumnus.