Mental Health: What Is It and How Students Can Find Help

Mental health has gained a lot of attention in the media in recent years, but many people still lack a comprehensive understanding of what those living with mental illness are struggling with. According to MentalHealth.gov, one in 10 young adults and teenagers have suffered from a period of depression, one in 25 Americans suffer from a serious mental illness, and suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in America.

What is mental health?

Mental health is the basic brain chemistry that impacts our behavior. If someone’s brain is healthy, they can act and feel with relative control of their emotions and actions. Just like any other part of our bodies, however, our brains can become sick. This is what’s known as a mental illness.

There are many factors that could cause someone to develop a mental illness. Some may develop due to a chemical imbalance, where the brain may produce too much or too little of a specific chemical. One can also develop because of a person’s history, like experiencing a form of trauma or abuse that could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. Some mental illnesses are passed down genetically, making some people predisposed to specific mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.

Related: The First Week of College With Mental Illness: Expectations vs. Reality

The stigma

It’s common for people with mental illnesses to be labeled as “crazy,” “weird,” and many other derogatory terms that further hinder them from getting better. This is due to a lack of understanding many have of the broad spectrum of mental illness. This view is dehumanizing.

Many people who suffer from mental illness are also often told they are “faking it for attention” or that it’s “not a real illness.” This trend further deters people from seeking help when they need it. It’s important that we educate ourselves on what mental illness is, the signs, and how to provide help and remove the harmful language surrounding mental health.

Signs of mental illness

It’s best not to attempt to self-diagnose or diagnose someone else with a mental illness. After recognizing certain signs, speak to a doctor or therapist for a proper diagnosis.

Anxiety disorders

It’s normal for everyone to feel anxious and even experience anxiety or panic attacks without suffering from an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder means these feelings are more prominent in a person’s day-to-day life, and it can seem incontrollable. Some symptoms of chronic anxiety are:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness
  • Trouble breathing
  • A sense of panic or trembling

Eating disorders

Not everyone suffering from an eating disorder “looks” like we would typically perceive them to. Just like any mental illness, there are many different types, and “eating disorder” serves as an umbrella term. The most common types are anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge-eating disorder. Signs of eating disorders include:

  • Paying extreme attention to body image
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Insisting on having a weight that is below average or unhealthy
  • Forced vomiting (purging)
  • Refusing to eat, especially in public
  • Excessive exercising
  • Overeating

Mood disorders

Mood disorders are one of the most well-known categories of mental illness because they cover conditions like depression and bipolar disorder. These illnesses affect mood and behaviors. Mood disorders symptoms include:

  • Sadness
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Sudden weight change
  • Lack of energy
  • Excessive sleeping or difficulty sleeping
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Drastic mood changes
  • Fatigue
  • Self-inflicted wounds (self-harm)

Suicidal behavior

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death of those aged 15–24. About 122 Americans die each day from suicide. Someone may be suicidal if they:

  • Talk about wanting to die or having no reason to live
  • Talk about being a burden
  • Behave recklessly
  • Show extreme rage
  • Exhibit mood swings
  • Abuse drugs and/or alcohol

For more information on what to look for, check out MentalHealth.gov.

Related: Mental Health Awareness Month: Help for Students

Where to find help

If you’re struggling with mental illness, it’s extremely important to seek help. It’s been proven that therapy and/or medication are effective in controlling mental illness. It’s not hopeless or unrealistic to think that your mental health can improve.

The first step is to schedule a doctor's appointment or reach out to a health professional, like your school nurse. A professional can give you the most accurate diagnosis and help you determine what steps are best for you. Even if you don’t have insurance, help is still available. For any questions regarding insurance, go to MentalHealth.gov.

There are also websites and free hotlines with information from trained workers. To speak to a crisis worker on the phone, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also speak with one in an online chat or text HOME to 741741 to text a crisis counselor for free in the US. For more information, visit Crisis Text Line.

How your school can help

Shows like 13 Reasons Why have shed a negative light on the resources schools may have for suicidal and struggling students, but help is available. While obtaining help from school hasn’t always been the most effective avenue, recent legal developments across the country have helped implement new programs in schools.

Speak to a trusted teacher or counselor about what they can do to help you. Keep in mind that teachers and counselors in high schools are mandatory reporters and will have to inform your parents if what you tell them leads them to believe that you are in danger of hurting yourself (or others).

Related: Q&A With Emily: Going to College With a Mental Illness

How to help as a friend or family member

If you notice signs of mental illness in a loved one or believe they may have suicidal thoughts, it’s important to reach out to them. What’s most important is that they know you love and support them no matter what.

It’s extremely important that you listen and try to understand everything they may be going through. Don’t keep what’s happening a secret. If they need help immediately, talk to a trusted adult or call emergency services. For more information, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has information on how to help others.

If you want to help a loved one, you can also contact the same hotlines listed above or speak to a counselor about what you can do to help.

Related: Being a Mental Health Ally

If you struggle from any of these issues, remember the way you’re feeling is out of your control. Know that people care about you, even if it doesn’t feel like it. You have a purpose and a reason for being here, and help is available for you. Don’t be afraid to reach out.

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