College Mental Health: From Awareness to Action

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May 31, 2017 – Mental Health Awareness Month in May coincides with a time of transitions. High school seniors are graduating. Many have faced deadlines to decide what college to attend.

Over the next few months, they may be picking roommates and anticipating the freedom — or nervousness — that comes with leaving home for the first time. The last thing on their minds may be mental health, but it needs to be a vital part of their preparation.

Transitions can be stressful. A survey of college presidents and student affairs officials by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that student mental health was the number one concern for most of the respondents.

That’s why NAMI and the Jed Foundation have published Starting Conversations: College and Your Mental Health, a guide for students to use in talking with parents or trusted adults about what stresses to expect in college, how to cope and how to navigate college mental health resources. We also have produced videos to accompany it.

Stressors that affect student mental health may include new academic pressures, the sense of feeling overwhelmed or like they don’t fit in, broken relationships or not enough sleep —to name only a few. In addition, this is the age when serious mental health conditions onset. The guide offers conversation starters to address these feelings, and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, psychosis or bipolar disorder.

The transition to college also coincides with turning 18, when legal relationships change and families may lack access to mental health information during times when they can provide critical support.  My daughter is turning 18 and will start college this year. We have read the guide and watched the videos together. She has become better aware of the challenges she will face in the transition to college. She also filled out a form in the guide authorizing the release of some health information to me and is keeping the guide for future reference.

Making social connections is a critical element for a person’s mental health and for helping others.  Roommates and friends play an important role in watching out for each other.

Tragically, when I was in college, I learned first-hand about the need for greater awareness about mental health. I shared a suite of rooms with several other women. One of them struggled with major depression. I had no experience with depression or any other mental health condition. I didn’t understand it. I thought she should simply cheer up, focus on the bright side, and go to more parties.

All the wrong things to say and do.

She attempted suicide and left school. I graduated and moved away. At one point, she was scheduled to come for a visit, but canceled. Shortly thereafter, I received the news that she had died from suicide.

She struggled alone because I could not provide better support. I lacked enough knowledge and understanding to help.

The guide is intended to help avert such tragedies. Students will learn symptoms of mental conditions and warning signs of suicide, as well as practical steps for getting help and supporting others.

Mental Health Awareness Month is about awareness, but it’s essential that awareness translates into action. Every individual must be ready to act: students, parents and even college faculty.

  • Please start by downloading the college guide from NAMI’s website. Send links to it to other families and friends who have a graduating high school senior starting college in the fall.
  • Please use the guide to start a conversation with your parents or student about the challenges of transition and how they relate to mental health and mental health conditions.

Going to college is an exciting time, filled with new experiences, new friends and independence. But difficult challenges do arise. The guide will provide students and families what they need to understand and talk about mental health, and put a plan in place just in case a mental health crisis should ever occur.

For further guidance on the complicated transition to college, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has produced the film It’s Real: College Students and Mental Health, which is available for use as part of a school’s educational program to encourage help-seeking.