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A General Guide to Mental Health Awareness for Students

Mental Health Awareness Month was created to destigmatize mental health issues and encourage people to seek help when they need it. Here's what you should know.

As every student knows, spring semester is filled with studying, exams, finals, the pressure of the future, and all the other stress-inducing things that come at the end of the school year. While they can be easy to just brush off, problems such as stress and anxiety are very real and can damage your mental health. And it’s not just academic stress; stress from family and relationship problems can also take a toll on your school and personal life. We don’t really ask, “How are you?” anymore. Greetings have been switched to “What’s up?” or “Hey, how was school?” This shifts the focus off our emotions and more onto our activities. And while those are important, many students push their feelings to the side, even when they need to get them out.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, and it’s the perfect time to open up the conversation. Most people have been impacted by mental health in some way, whether personally, through a family member, or through a friend. It’s important for students to be able to recognize warning signs, know where to find resources if you or someone you care about is in need of help, and raise awareness to end the stigma around mental health issues.

About Mental Health Awareness Month

May has been the official month for mental health since 1949, according to Mental Health America (MHA). Many organizations collaborate to take this time to bring light to the importance of mental and emotional health, but the biggest awareness efforts are led by MHA. This national nonprofit picks a main focal point for Mental Health Awareness Month each year; previous themes have included "Risky Business," which highlighted how dangerous bad habits can be in worsening or indicating mental illness, and "Back to Basics," which had the goal of providing foundational knowledge about mental health and associated conditions and information about what people can do if their mental health is a cause for concern. While this special month has a new theme every year, there's a continuous mission that's being executed every day: spreading knowledge about various mental illnesses, letting people know they're not alone, and destigmatizing mental health so more people seek help when they need it.

Related: Mental Health: What It Is and How You Can Find Help

Depression

In 2020, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reported an estimated 14.8 million US adults age 18 or older had at least one major depressive episode during the year—increased due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Depression is more than just a bad day. It's an extended period of bad days—periods of time where you constantly feel alone and it seems like nobody can help. It's when you can't make yourself get out of bed to go to school in the morning because you're too tired and overwhelmed to think about facing the day.

These things can start to consume anyone, to the point that they let their feelings out dangerously. Millions of people self-harm every day, and while it's not always because of depression, it's commonly associated with it. People will continue to take their emotions out on themselves for a long time, and many feel so strongly that they cannot get better. They feel like they don't matter, and they wonder what it would be like if they just were not around. But there are things we can look out for, warning signs and symptoms that can tell us when someone may need help. These include a loss of interest, where usual activities just can't excite someone as much as they used to. Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or self-loathing can all show just how much someone is hurting. There are also some physically draining symptoms, including drastic changes in sleep schedules and severe weight change. If you notice someone with these symptoms or expressing these feelings, tell someone. It could save a life.

Eating disorders

Eating disorders are unfortunately increasingly more common. National surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Eating Disorders Association. Many factors contribute to eating disorders, including genetics, social pressure, unhealthy relationships, and low self-esteem. They range from not eating enough (anorexia nervosa) to eating too much (binge-eating disorder). In addition, people with bulimia nervosa will binge and purge in a dangerous cycle. All these conditions are dangerous and can lead to or are stemmed from depression. But even if they stand alone, they are still a great danger. 

Again, there are signs of eating disorders that could save a life if spotted. Physical warning signs for anorexia include dramatic weight loss, constant cold, and abdominal pain. Women can also lose their periods. Behavioral signs include excessive exercising, denial of hunger, fear of weight gain, and denial or ignorance of the severity of the situation. Binge-eating disorder can be spotted by expressed guilt about eating, fluctuations in weight, and food hoarding. As for bulimia, signs include an unusual swelling in the cheeks and jaw; excessive use of gum, mints, and mouthwash; or bloating from fluid retention. People will often leave meals soon after eating, normally going to the bathroom. Victims of all three disorders may constantly check themselves in the mirror for flaws, be obsessed with weight, and/or prefer eating alone. If you know anyone exhibiting these symptoms or behaviors, consider referring them to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Anxiety

Everybody has moments where they get anxious or stressed out, and for the most part these moments pass. But for some, they do not. In fact, it can get a lot worse over time. It will interfere with daily activities and relationships, consuming people. While there are many types of anxiety, there are three main disorders: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder. Generalized anxiety can be spotted by sleep irregularity and fatigue, restlessness, and trouble controlling worry. Panic disorder is different, where people have panic attacks in which they become intensely afraid that are often paired with increased heart rate, shaking, and shortness of breath. Social anxiety disorder is when people are terrified of interacting with others due to expectations of constant failure. Symptoms include self-consciousness around others, fear of judgment, and trembling or feeling sick during interactions with others. 

Related: Alleviating Stress and Anxiety: The Best Advice From Real Students

Additional help and resources

These issues are not going to get better on their own, so the most important thing for those suffering is to get help. If you or someone you know is showing signs of any of these conditions, talk to an adult. Stop in for a chat with your school counselor or teacher, or talk with your parents about how you're feeling. Your counselors are there for you, and they also have resources to help you. While you may look at them and think they specialize specifically in school schedules, they know how to handle situations this serious and can refer you to a specialist. It’s also extremely important to make time for yourself. Whether it's spending time on hobbies like music or art, or just taking some time to unwind, self-care is crucial in managing stress. If you need immediate support or just someone to talk to about you or your loved ones, there are hotlines for just about anything you can call or text, including:

  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 (available 24/7)
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255 or use their Lifeline Chat (available 24/7)
  • Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance Hotline: 1-800-826-3632 or text DBSA to 741-741 (available 24/7)
  • NEDA Eating Disorder Helpline: Call or text 1-800-931-2237 (only available certain hours during the week; for a crisis, text NEDA to 741741)

Raising awareness

The fight to end the stigma surrounding mental illness is a hard battle that continues to persevere. With the help of prominent individuals in the media opening up about mental illness, the conversation is starting to open up, but there is more progress to be made. So what can you do to raise awareness and help end the stigma? Supporters can:

  • Advocate for mental health education in schools
  • Encourage leaders to back mental health legislation
  • Organize group workouts
  • Watch out for bullying
  • Talk to others about their experiences and share your own story
  • Get involved in anything that will break down the walls surrounding mental illness and get people talking

Related: 8 Ways to Improve Your Mental Health in College

For a long time, mental illness and mental health in general were taboo subjects. As more people speak up and ask for help, the conversations get easier, louder, and more impactful. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge when you need assistance, and seek out a professional who can help you work through any mental health problem. Life is hard and you don’t need to do it alone. Communicate with your friends and family if you or someone you know needs help, and remind yourself that things can and will get better.

Check out our "mental health" tag for more advice on ways to maintain your mental health, find help as a student, and more. 

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