By Kate Anticoli, Content Marketing Specialist
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In recognition, we will be publishing a series of articles about the status of mental health in the United States. Mental health diagnoses are rising and many colleges are trying to react in the best way they can to protect mental health in college students.
The University of Utah recently installed a “cry closet” in one of their libraries. It’s a small room with padded walls and stuffed animals that students can use as a refuge during finals week. As a recent college grad, I didn’t know if I should roll my eyes at the absurdity, or be jealous that my school didn’t think of it first. I read through the article on Twitter that described the closet in more detail – it began as an art project by student Nemo Miller. After completing the project, Miller received permission from the university to display it in the library. Her hope was that it would give students a place to take a well-deserved break during finals week, and would “promote feeling, thought, and conversation.” It definitely did that. People had polarizing reactions – some applauded the piece and the concept of a “cry closet” while others criticized a generation that couldn’t handle taking a test without a quick cry.
As I read more, I started thinking about this not as a recent college grad who’s had her fair share of meltdowns, but as someone who’s spent the last year immersed in behavioral health. What does a “cry closet” say about the mental health of our college students?
Let’s look at the numbers
I loved college. But juggling five classes, an internship, two on-campus jobs, five executive boards, a thesis project, a fellowship, and expectations from peers, parents, professors, supervisors, and advisors was emotionally exhausting. I was only reduced to tears twice – my typical coping method was denial and copious amounts of caffeine and carbs. But other students were reduced to tears more regularly. And not over one test. They juggled workloads that equaled or surpassed mine and didn’t have the support system I did. Students are stressed. A 2015 study of 1000 students showed that 30% are stressed for the entire semester; 28% are stressed 5-7 times per semester; 31% are stressed 2-4 times per semester; and 9% are stressed once per semester. 57.7% of students experienced overwhelming anxiety at least once in the past month.
Stress is just one aspect of a college student’s mental health. More than 75% of all mental health conditions begin before the age of 24 and 1 in 5 college students will suffer from at least one. Almost 73% of college students living with a mental health condition experienced a mental health crisis on campus.
The Top 5 :Students struggle with a wide variety of mental health issues, but there are five that are the most prevalent among college students today.
This common disorder affects 36.4% of college students. Depression is the number one reason students drop out of school, and if left untreated can lead to more mental health issues. Students often find themselves ill equipped to handle the negative emotions of starting college – confusion, helplessness, stress, fear. If these feelings never dissipate and the student doesn’t seek help, they can lead to depression.
Not everyone who feels anxious has an anxiety disorder. It’s normal to feel anxious at times. Anxiety becomes a cause for concern when it interferes with your daily life and hinders you from accomplishing tasks. Affecting over 40 million adults over the age of 18, anxiety is the most common mental illness. 75% of those affected by an anxiety disorder experience their first episode before the age of 22.
There are multiple types of anxiety disorders: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), and more.
Suicide can arise when feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and despair build from pre-existing mental health issues. In 2013, suicide was declared the second leading cause of death in college students in the United States. Students may communicate their intent through their speech, mood, or behavior.
I was a Resident Assistant (RA) for two years in college, and I had several residents struggle with suicidal thoughts. One student had a pre-existing mental health illness, while others were under intense pressure from their academic and extracurricular commitments. They exhibited several of the warning signs we were taught to look out for in RA training, which is how I knew further action was needed.
Eating disorders plague all ages and genders. 30,000,000 people suffer from eating disorders in the United States. It’s the mental health disorder with the highest mortality rate.
Many students gain weight during their first year at college now that they have complete control over their diet and can eat ice cream for dinner as often as they want. Students may seek to rectify this problem or prevent it by severely watching what they eat, and subsequently developing an eating disorder. For others, diet is the one thing they have control over during a tumultuous period of change and they cling to that control. Many college students do not seek help for their eating disorders, or do not believe that they have a problem. Eating disorders are life threatening and often lead to other serious health issues if not acknowledged.
Students are experiencing newfound freedoms at college, and often discover how accessible drugs and alcohol are. Without parents or guardians nearby, and with easy and encouraged access to a variety of substances, many students take advantage without considering the side effects. Nearly 20% of college students meet the Alcohol Use Disorder criteria. Almost 60% of college students have consumed alcohol in the last month, and two out of three of these students binge drank during the last month.
To cry in a closet, or not to?
The number of students dealing with mental health problems is rising. And college counselors are seeing an increase in threat-to-self characteristics such as serious suicidal thoughts and self-injurious behaviors. With this increase, schools are struggling to find solutions. Cornell University installed “suicide nets” underneath their bridges in 2012. Therapy dogs grace campuses to offer support during finals week. And, of course, the University of Utah installed their cry closet. However, these solutions paint a pretty grim picture of what’s supposed to be the best four years of your life.
These solutions are reactive – but we need to be proactive. Students need to learn how to cope with their mental health illnesses in a way that isn’t detrimental to their overall health. They need to recognize how many of their peers are silently struggling with similar afflictions. And they need to know there’s no shame in struggling and in asking for help.
The first step for colleges is to raise awareness, and talk about mental health. Tell students what the warning signs are for the top 5 mental health illnesses on campus. Tell students what resources are available to them. Sing the praises of the counseling center, of the students’ Resident Assistants, Hall Directors, professors, and advisers.
Ask students what they need to be successful – more counselors, one mental health day per semester, reading weeks before finals….and if they need a cry closet, give them a cry closet. Just don’t expect it to solve everything.
“To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
The most important decision of your life, the one that will affect every other decision you make, is the commitment to love and accept yourself. It directly affects the quality of your relationships, your work, your free time, your faith, and your future. Why, then, is this so difficult to do?
Your Family of Origin
I grew up with nine siblings. I had two older brothers, three older sisters, three younger sisters, and a younger brother.
I never fit in. My sisters were tall and thin with beautiful, long, lush hair. By eleven years old, I was short and very curvy. My hair was fine, thin, and wild.
For the most part, my siblings did as they were told. I was outspoken, out of control, and rebellious.
I wore my sister’s hand-me-down school uniforms. I rolled up the hems on the skirts and popped buttons on the blouses. My look was unkempt.
I was teased and bullied at home and at school. Yet I didn’t go quietly into the night. I fought for my place in my family. To protect myself, I developed a good punch and grew a sharp tongue.
I was twenty-seven years old and married with four children when I became desperate enough to seek out my first therapist. I felt alone, stuck, and unlovable. I was determined to change.
After six months of working through my childhood issues, old thoughts, beliefs, and events, I felt alive again. It was like stripping off several layers of paint from an antique piece of furniture. I found myself restored to my original beauty.
We’re taught by society that our worth is found in the idols of our culture—technology, status, youth, sex, power, money, attractiveness, and romantic relationships.
If you base your self worth on the external world, you’ll never be capable of self-love.
Your inner critic will flood you with thoughts of “I’m not enough, I don’t have enough, and I don’t do enough.”
Feelings of lack are never-ending. Every time a goal is reached or you possess the next big thing, your ego will move the line.
Shift Your Self-Perception
Feeling worthy requires you to see yourself with fresh eyes of self-awareness and love. Acceptance and love must come from within.
You don’t have to be different to be worthy. Your worth is in your true nature, a core of love and inner goodness. You are a beautiful light. You are love. We can bury our magnificence, but it’s impossible to destroy.
Loving ourselves isn’t a one time event. It’s an endless, ongoing process. It begins with you, enfolding yourself in your own affection and appreciation.
Read on for steps to discover your worth and enfold yourself in affection and appreciation.
1. Begin your day with love (not technology).
Remind yourself of your worthiness before getting out of bed. Breathe in love and breathe out love. Enfold yourself in light. Saturate your being in love.
2. Take time to meditate and journal.
Spend time focusing inward daily. Begin with five minutes of meditation and five minutes of journaling each morning. Gradually increase this time.
3. Talk yourself happy.
Use affirmations to train your mind to become more positive. Put a wrist band on your right wrist. When you’re participating in self-criticism, move the band to your left wrist.
4. Get emotionally honest.
Let go of numbing your feelings. Shopping, eating, and drinking are examples of avoiding discomfort, sadness, and pain. Mindfully breathe your way through your feelings and emotions.
5. Expand your interests.
Try something new. Learn a language. Go places you’ve never been. Do things you haven’t done before. You have a right to an awesome life.
6. Enjoy life enhancing activities.
Find exercise you like. Discover healthy foods that are good for you. Turn off technology for a day and spend time doing things that make you feel alive.
7. Become willing to surrender.
Breathe, relax, and let go. You can never see the whole picture. You don’t know what anything is for. Stop fighting against yourself by thinking and desiring people and events in your life should be different. Your plan may be different from your soul’s intentions.
8. Work on personal and spiritual development.
Be willing to surrender and grow. Life is a journey. We are here to learn and love on a deeper level. Take penguin steps and life becomes difficult. One step at a time is enough to proceed forward.
9. Own your potential.
Love yourself enough to believe in the limitless opportunities available to you. Take action and create a beautiful life for yourself.
10. Be patient with yourself.
Let go of urgency and fear. Relax and transform striving into thriving. Trust in yourself, do good work, and you will see results.
11. Live in appreciation.
Train your mind to be grateful. Appreciate your talents, beauty, and brilliance. Love your imperfectly perfect self.
12. Be guided by your intuition.
All answers come from within. Look for signs and pay attention to your gut feelings. You’ll hear two inner voices when you need to make a decision. The quiet voice is your higher self; the loud voice is your ego. Always go with the quieter voice.
13. Do what honors and respects you.
Don’t participate in activities that bring you down. Don’t allow toxic people in your life. Love everyone, but be discerning on who you allow into your life.
14. Accept uncertainty.
Suffering comes from living in the pain of the past or the fear of the future. Put your attention on the present moment and be at peace.
15. Forgive yourself.
Learn from your mistakes and go forward. Use this affirmation, “I forgive myself for judging myself for __________ (fill in the blank i.e.: for getting sick, for acting out, for not doing your best).
16. Discover the power of fun.
Self-love requires time to relax, play, and create face-to-face interaction with others. Our fast-paced world creates a goal setting, competitive craziness that doesn’t leave room for play. Dr. Stuart Brow says, “The opposite of play isn’t work, it is depression.”
17. Be real.
Speak up and speak out. Allow yourself to be seen, known, and heard. Get comfortable with intimacy (in-to-me-see).
18. Focus on the positive.
Go to your heart and dwell on and praise yourself for what you get right in all areas.
19. Become aware of self neglect and rejection.
Become conscious of your choices. Ask yourself several times throughout the day, “Does this choice honor me?”
20. Imagine what your life would look like if you believed in your worth.
Dedicate your life to loving you. Make it your main event.
21. Seek professional help.
Self-rejection and neglect is painful. You deserve to be happy. You have a right to be accepted and loved. If necessary, seek help from a support group, counselor, or coach. It’s the best investment you can make.
Because we are all interconnected, when I love me, I also love you. Together through our love, we can heal ourselves, each other, and the world. Love is our purpose, our true calling. It begins with and within each of us.
By Tess Marshall