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Fighting the Mental Health Stigma on College Campuses

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I didn’t realize there was such a huge stigma around mental health until I got to college. It was almost as if everyone believed if you talked about mental health openly, it meant there was something wrong with you or that you had something to be ashamed of.

This is not true.

What people fail to realize is that everyone has to take care of themselves mentally — just as they do physically, emotionally, socially, etc. Your mental health can be affected in a million different ways, especially in college. You’re starting the next chapter of your life, and that’s a big deal. It can also be scary. It’s OK to be scared! In fact, it’s normal and much more common than people realize.

Every single person I know (and who you know) has dealt with some sort anxiety. But it’s important to remember that only feeling anxious before exams is much different from having anxiety every day. It’s also important to know that it’s possible for someone close to you have “high-functioning” anxiety or depression and you may never know unless they tell you. Whichever category someone falls into, going to college could set off triggers they didn’t even know they had. Some of the most common ones (at least at my university) include:

Homesickness – Some students leave home for the first time when they go to college. It’s not always easy to go from seeing your family every day to only every few months. It’s also hard to be away from home when family member is dealing with health issues, and you want to be there for support or you’re worried about them.

Overwhelming course load – College is different from high school. Some professors will ask you to read more than 100 pages for one night. Some will make you write every day. It really depends on your major and the courses you take, but it can be a lot to take in.

Peer pressure – This is always something I talk to my freshmen about. A lot of people, when they first get to college, want to go out and drink and party. That’s OK, but if it’s not your thing, you don’t have to. A lot of people think, well if my roommate or friend invites me to a party then I have to go. No, you don’t. You can if you want to, and if you don’t like it you can leave early. A lot of people also feel pressure to drink. If you don’t want to drink before you’re 21 then don’t. A good friend – a real friend – won’t force it on you or tell you you’re “no fun.” They’ll ask if you’re sure and then accept it.

Uncertainty – Not everyone starts college knowing their major and what they want to do with their life. And if you do (that’s great!), it is still possible that you’ll change your mind (I did). That’s OK! It happens a lot actually. It’s also possible that you won’t follow a typical two or four year path (even if you do have a plan ahead of time). Between switching majors, finding your career path, and sometimes having to add an extra year or semester, uncertainty is a part of the college process. Maybe not for everyone, but it’s definitely not uncommon.

All of these things can either cause anxiety or make it worse. It can be difficult to deal with, but at the end of the day you have to remember to take care of yourself. Of course, that isn’t always easy, and sometimes you may feel like giving up. When you get to that point, find someone to talk to. Friend, parents, roommate, an academic advisor, counselor, whomever you are comfortable talking to. Once you find that person, together you can figure out the best steps that will help you cope.

At my university the counseling center was called CAPS: Counseling and Psychological Services. If students were having a rough time and someone suggested CAPS to them, their immediate response was, “I don’t need to go there. I’m not crazy.” This comment, is one of the biggest problems. It pisses me off every time I hear it. Mental health issues are not synonymous with “crazy.” Ever. But so many people have no idea how to address mental health openly. At the first mention of it they shut down. At the end of the day, what those people don’t realize is that it doesn’t matter if they understand. This is someone else’s life. You don’t get to judge just because you have different experiences. It doesn’t matter if you “get it.” What matters is you support them and still treat them with respect they deserve

I was having a conversation with a friend on Twitter the other day and apparently there’s also a negative stigma around the phrase, “taking a mental health day.” Supposedly, people are under the impression this means calling in sick just for the hell of it. No. I don’t take a mental health day to be lazy. I do it because I’m overwhelmed, stressed, and need to reorganize my life because if I don’t I might have a breakdown. I like to keep busy and stay organized, so that’s what my mental health day looks like. I use the entire day to catch up and then get ahead. Other people may use this day to relax themselves in different ways: going to a spa, catching up on sleep, running personal errands but staying away from work things. Whatever your mental health day may look like, it serves a purpose. In college, it is really important to have these days to prevent burnout when you have a lot on your plate. By the end of your mental health day you should feel refreshed and ready to face whatever you have ahead of you.

So what did I do about all of this?

I was already a student leader and an RA so I was trained on dealing with mental health and suicide prevention. To get more involved I joined Active Minds, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about mental health on campuses. Most universities have a chapter on their campus, and if you don’t you can apply to start one. The two biggest events we host are Stomping out Stigma and Send Suicide Packing. Stomping out Stigma includes writing down a myth about mental health on an empty soda can… and stomping on it! Send Suicide Packing happens once a year, and we place 1,100 empty backpacks all over campus to acknowledge the amount of students lost to suicide every year. Aside from those two big events we also participated in the Wellness Fair and other small events that are for the purpose of educating students about all elements of wellness.

Hopefully, this post is helpful if you’re about to start college, currently in college or just needed to be reminded to put your health first.

This post was originally published on Bookmark Chronicles.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Stock photo by Kris Timken

Originally published: November 1, 2016
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