By Jana Letterman

College is a time of discovery, new journeys and finding lifelong friends. For most it’s a fun adventure full of new and exciting endeavors. It can be a launching pad for life experiences yet to come – a time in life when many young adults find new burning passions and the motivation to thrive.  But for many, college can be a lonely and even excruciating struggle where mental illness flares its full force. The burning passion is overwhelmed and lost by a sense of “crash and burn”. 

College is full of stressful exams, deadlines and pressure and often can push students to the edge of their mental health. According to the Association for University and College Counseling Center directors, over 36% of college students reported some level of depression in 2013. It is the number one reason students drop out of school.  The National Alliance on Mental illness (NAMI) in 2012 reported:

- One in four college students have a diagnosable mental illness

- 40% do not seek help

- 80% feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities

- 50% have been so anxious they struggled in school

And, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America in 2011nearly 75% of those affected by an anxiety disorder will experience their first episode before the age of 22.

 

MY EXPERIENCE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

In my own college experience I didn’t even know I was suffering from depression. In fact, from the outside looking inward, others saw a type “a”, ambitious and successful college student. I was a double major and a scholarship volleyball player.

However, the churning of internal storms began brewing for me while in college. Outside of the classroom and off the court I continuously retreated away from social activities and friends. Interaction with others was replaced with solemn solitude and heightened anxiety. 

I never sought treatment. I didn’t even know I was starting down the road of a life with depression. If I had acknowledged my need I don’t know if I would have sought help or known where to go or what to say. Like the 40% of students with a diagnosable mental illness who do not seek help I probably would have avoided the stigma and remained silent while suffering.

Instead I continued being confused. It wasn’t until my grandfather died from suicide just weeks after I graduated that I started to understand what I was going through was a diagnosable mental illness. Many years later I confronted my own issues and got help.

Stigma surrounding mental illness is still prevalent and college students continue to not get the help they desperately need and deserve. However, colleges are taking steps in the right direction.

UNIVERSITIES PROVIDE ASSISTANCE AND A RESPONSIVE ENVIRONMENT

The best college mental health programs focus on two segments; prevention and treatment.  They address issues such as eliminating stigma across campus, reducing long wait times, counseling resources and re-enrollment for students.

Harding University has multiple programs administered through its University Counseling Center. Their Relational Health Initiative (RHI) is focused on providing information and presentations on anxiety, depression and other mental health topics to the entire student body. Lew Moore PhD, is the director.  He says, “Since there is high reporting of anxiety and depression, one needs good habits of rest, exercise and relaxation. Additionally, diversification of non-academic activities is a must. There is little doubt that isolation, significant time allocated to electronic gaming and insignificant sleep perpetuate symptoms leading to anxiety and depression. The fatigue factor plays a significant role in academics, personal well-being and capacity/durability to address life struggles that arise.”

Resources for individual needs are often met through counseling and small groups. Lew explains, “These resources along with engaged faculty and spiritual focus provide a rich and responsive environment for students with emotional and mental concerns to seek assistance during tenure at Harding.”

Southwest Baptist University’s Counseling Services Coordinator, Debbie Walker, PsyD stated, “Often new students experience home sickness and adjustment disorders at the beginning of a school year that can increase the number of students suffering from a mental illness.” 

Their department emphasizes their services at the beginning of the year to create awareness for both new and returning students.  They also organize a mental health awareness campaign during Mental Health Awareness month in October to aid in their efforts.

Walker believes SBU’s student body echoes the national average of 1 in 4 people suffering from depression. “Even with the high numbers, stigma is still an issue on campus and we strive to combat it by creating an open community.”

They offer several less formal opportunities through “dorm talks” and “coffee talks” to create an environment where people are more willing to participate. And, they strive to cover many topics and illnesses from dating violence to depression.

FROM SOLEMN SOLITUDE TO SOLEMN SOLITUDE

Juggling classes, working and busy social schedules all contribute to a hectic college lifestyle. Like me when I was in college, students struggling with mental illness may retreat from friends and others into an unhealthy solemn solitude that is filled with heightened anxiety. Instead, students should spend regular time in positive forms of solemn solitude that strengthen the spirit.  Intentionally creating time for quiet reflection and prayer can bring powerful healing and peace. Taking time to meditate on the Bible can help students lead mentally healthy lives.

 

 


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Mental illness is a very significant concern on campus. While colleges are taking steps in the right direction to better serve those in need, stigma still prevails and many students who need help fail to receive it.

During the fall semester there are several tips students can put into action to prepare themselves for the mental health challenges they may face.

Mental/Social Care

- Reach out early and often to your university resources.

- Form a support circle of friends in whom you can trust and confide.

- Don’t turn to alcohol, drugs, cigarettes or other unhealthy addictions.

- Keep balance in your life between classes, work and social activities. Make some time just for you.

Fitness

- Be active. Consistently use the university fitness center. If there isn’t one, find the right space to put your workout in place.

- Join a recreational sports team, participate in intramural sports or find a group exercise class that is right for you.

- Don’t be shy about working out instead have confidence.

- Keep your nutrition in check and make sure you are eating healthy.

- Don’t forget to consistently get a proper night’s sleep.

Faith

- Reach out to campus Christian fraternities and groups.

- Spend time in solemn solitude and prayer. Find a chapel or church sanctuary or create a space where you can go for daily alter time.

- Make friends and connections with people who care for you, hold you accountable and strengthen you in your faith.

- Most importantly remember God created you so treat yourself with the value he bestowed upon you as a child of God.

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