Every May, we strive to increase knowledge and reduce the stigma of mental health through Mental Health Awareness Month. This year in particular, as we face economic uncertainty and concern for personal and public health, our collective mental health has taken a hit. As a recent college graduate who is passionate about wellness and reminiscent of her last four years at university, I’ve found myself reflecting on the ways my perspectives on mental health have changed. College is a wonderful, eye-opening, challenging, life-altering experience, and with it comes immense personal growth and a lot of lessons learned. Here are some of the most important things I learned about mental health in college:
1. Burying yourself in work is not the answer
I have the privilege of absolutely loving my work. I’m also incredibly goal-oriented and get a feeling of joy every time I cross something off my to-do list. This has allowed me to become successful as a student, but quickly became an unhealthy coping mechanism. For most of my time in college, whenever I was experiencing any negative emotions in my personal life, I would ignore the problem by burying myself in work. I thought I was handling my emotions productively by using work as an outlet to take my mind off my personal life. I eventually realized that I would actually end up feeling even worse afterwards. As much as I loved my work, I was using it as an escape to avoid dealing with my personal stress, which was damaging my mental health. I wasn’t giving myself time to deal with my personal life, leading me to bottle it up until I couldn’t handle it anymore and broke down in a less-than-ideal way. Avoiding dealing with my personal stress by working on overdrive started putting a strain on my relationships, so I decided to make a change. I tried to face my problems head on, rather than ignoring them for days or weeks or months. It wasn't easy - breaking bad habits can feel impossible at times. But, making this change strengthened my relationships, helped me to actually reduce my stress, and ultimately improved my mental health, which has improved my life in so many ways.
2. Nurturing your relationships is so important
One of the most difficult things I’ve encountered in college was learning how to manage relationships. Between classes, work, and other extracurricular activities, finding time to spend with your friends can be really difficult. But college is hard, and trying to navigate an entirely new chapter of your life when you feel alone is incredibly challenging. Finding a group of friends that I could rely on for support and talk to when I’m feeling down has been so important for my mental health. Some of my most difficult days were made better by spending an evening with a friend, eating food and talking about our feelings. It might sound incredibly cliché, but there is scientific evidence that having strong social support is good for your overall wellbeing, not just your mental health. So reach out to the friend you’ve been meaning to talk to, call your family way more frequently than you think you should, and make time for the people who matter most to you.
3. Communicate, and communicate clearly
With college comes living with roommates, and roommates come with different living styles - likely ones you don’t always agree with. If there is one lesson I learned in college that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, it’s the importance of learning how to communicate and advocate for yourself. My nature was to avoid conflict at all costs, so I quickly had to learn how to communicate effectively instead of holding in my thoughts about things I wasn’t happy about or didn’t agree with. Putting up with something that bothers you and avoiding talking about it leads to pent up frustration that can make your living situation, or any situation for that matter, so much more stress-inducing and negative. If you’re in an environment where certain things don't make you happy, communicating about your feelings calmly and clearly can improve your situation tremendously. Learning how to communicate in a way that is constructive was essential to managing my relationships and improving my mental health, and I’m so grateful that my experiences in college pushed me to do so.
4. Do what works for you
At the end of the day, every person is different and the best way to manage your mental health might not be the same way that your best friend or your partner or even the way wellness experts manage their mental health. No one can ever know yourself better than you do, so whether it’s spending a day practicing self-care, spending time with friends, exercising, or talking to a therapist, find what works for you and stick to it. Discovering how to best take care of yourself is a journey, but a journey that will benefit your overall wellbeing in so many ways.
Mental health is an ongoing challenge for many of us, a challenge that becomes even more difficult when there is a lack of knowledge and stigma surrounding the issues we face. This Mental Health Awareness Month, I encourage you to invest in your own wellness, and if you are able, advocate for the wellbeing of others in your community. In a time where many of us feel alone or are faced with environmental factors seemingly out of our control, we can only hope to triumph by supporting ourselves and each other. If you’re experiencing mental health challenges, I urge you to seek out help, whether it be friends and family or the help of a professional. Here are some resources:
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255); En Español 1-888-628-9454
The Lifeline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Text “HELLO” to 741741
The Crisis Text hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week throughout the U.S.
Call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746
The disaster distress helpline provides immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. The helpline is free, multilingual, confidential, and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
You can find these, and more resources at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/find-help/index.shtml