By Brian Brecker
Elm Staff Writer
Mental illness is not an easy burden to bear in college, and yet a large section of the student body, including myself, do so to varying degrees of success. It is not an easy topic to cover, and I cannot cover it all. Instead, I will attempt to describe how mental illness affects the student body, offer my own experience when necessary, and advise people on how to handle situations involving mental illness and individuals suffering from it.
A friend of mine once told me something like, “We all make jokes about mental health, because it’s the only way to acknowledge we have these issues.”
It is an astute observation because one can easily see how this attitude permeates the surface of current culture, especially on the Internet. It’s impossible to discuss mental illness in this country without first breaking down the wall of stigma.
Mental disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, genetic factors, and the experience of trauma. Society often avoids and isolates individuals who suffer from these conditions, worsening the sense of self-blame and loneliness. The college atmosphere can intensify these feelings with an increased workload, the desire to be perfect, and party lifestyle. It is easy for students to feel overwhelmed.
Studies from the National Alliance on Mental Illness show that 18.5 percent of adults and 21.4 percent of teenagers suffer from a diagnosed mental disorder. According to these statistics, at least one in five of your peers could be suffering from a mental illness. The stigma surrounding mental health makes it difficult to talk about, but if you see someone self-harming or making disparaging comments about themselves, talk to them about it.
It is important to remember you are not your friend’s therapist, but you are an emotional support of some kind. If they do not feel comfortable speaking about something, it’s important to respect that and not get frustrated. The worst thing you can do is abandon that person when they’re vulnerable. Encourage them to reach out to someone for help even if it’s not you. Health and Counseling Services, a respected professor, another friend, are all options.
When people take extreme actions and end up in the hospital or need medical assistance, they tend to avoid feeling guilty about causing others distress and worry by not talking about what bothers them. If something like this does happen to your friend, it is natural to become angry or upset, but that is the wrong response to give to someone suffering from mental illness. It is more helpful if you can show concern without passing judgment. Accept the mistake the person has made and offer your company in case they need to talk.
I have been diagnosed with ADHD, OCD, social anxiety disorder, and clinical depression. For those reading this that suffer from mental health issues like I do, I have some advice on to how to survive. If you feel yourself stressing out to the point of a mental breakdown (we all have had them and there is no shame in that), I recommend partially finishing your task, and then taking a break. This could encompass a long shower, watching a movie, listening to music, etc. You should message some of your friends or go see them in person. It is very easy to feel isolated working alone on a project for a long period of time sometimes we forget how much other people genuinely care for us.
When you have a mental breakdown, it is good to remember that those extreme feelings will eventually pass, and you are not a dysfunctional person because you are having one. If ever the choice comes down to your mental health or your grades, your mental and physical well-being should always take precedent. If you miss class due to your mental health, it may be best to talk to Health and Counseling Services. Going to see them does not have to be for an emergency. It does not mean you are different than anyone else. In hindsight, I should have taken all this advice in freshman year.
I’m revealing this not for attention, but to support an open dialogue about mental health. The fact that many of us have these issues is why I think more discussion is necessary. If one in five people on campus had a physical ailment that affected their well-being, it would not be overlooked. WC has made tremendous strides in prompting discussions, providing counseling, and encouraging the student body to be more active in the aid of those suffering. But until people feel comfortable saying that they go to such services, there will still be those languishing alone out of fear of social stigma.
What we can do about these issues are plenty. We can foster discussions and proposals with the Student Government Association to aid in awareness and normalization of seeking treatment. We can seek out support from President Kurt Landgraf to direct more funding towards counseling services. We can support our friends to seek counseling not just when things boil over into horrific moments.
None of this will happen unless we actively care for one another with the gentleness and compassion that fellow people genuinely deserve. Empathy is not a threat, it is not weakness; it is what binds communities together. We should all strive to have the capacity for compassion and the emotional depth to care for others.
If you need attention right away, I recommend you contact Public Safety (410-778-7810), Health and Counseling Services (410-778-7261), or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255).