One in four college students will suffer from some form of diagnosable mental illness this year. More than half of these college students will suffer from some form of depression. Unfortunately, a great number of college students will not seek professional help to assist in treating their depression. Nobody is quite sure how many cases of depression go undiagnosed because nobody can be sure how many depressed people do not seek help. No matter the number, it’s too many
Many people do not seek help for their depression because of the stigma that’s associated with the illness. For some, the idea of a “mental illness” is a misnomer. Unlike physical illnesses, in which the symptoms of the disease are clearly observable, the symptoms for mental illnesses are often hard for others to see. An individual suffering from abject emotional torment may even be able to hide the symptoms of a mental illness from friends or family. People may find it easy to empathize with someone who is visibly ill, willingly giving the sufferer time off or work or an extension on papers. For someone whose illness doesn’t manifest itself as prevalently, that same empathy may be harder to find. If our society is to overcome the depression epidemic, we must begin to recognize depression for what it is; a serious health problem that can have lasting consequences.
Even for people who acknowledge the reality of mental illness, depression still carries a damaging stigma. For some, depression is not seen as a mental illness, but instead a weakness or inadequacy. This is especially true for young men. Our culture forbids men from showing emotional vulnerability. As such, men often do not seek help when they need it most. It is a tragedy that suicide is the third leading cause of death for men aged 18-26. Perhaps if young men understood that it’s perfectly okay, and healthy, to be emotionally vulnerable, this wouldn’t be the case.
Men often see depression as an inability to cope with stress. Rather than associating debilitating depression with mental health, men associate depression with weakness. This often exacerbates the problems associated with depression. People who are depressed see the world entirely differently from people who don’t suffer from the illness. They often put inordinate amounts of pressure on themselves to overcome their perceived inadequacies; setting unrealistic goals and becoming more depressed when those goals aren’t met. For a young man who is taught his whole life to be a rock of emotional stability, this can be devastating. If this young man happens to be starting college, facing a whole array of new challenges in a whole new environment, coping with depression can seem insurmountable.
The beginning of the school year can be exhilarating. There are new classes, new friends, new acquaintances, and new challenges. Some people might be moving away from home for the first time. Others might be juggling work, school, a girlfriend, and extracurricular activities. The stress that is sometimes associated with transitioning into a new semester is often loss in the excitement of going to college. It’s important that people coming to college for the first time, or even those returning, take a moment to acknowledge the state of their mental health.
Colleges place a great emphasis on physical health. People must be immunized for various diseases before going to school, the flu shot is highly recommended, and pamphlets discussing healthy sleep habits and nutrition are often given to students. The topic of mental health, however, is somewhat overlooked. Students are certainly made aware of mental health services, but the topic can be awkward to talk about. Pamphlets for mental health services are briskly shoved in some drawer, and eyes gaze away when people start talking about how to cope with stress, depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems. Why?
It’s because of the stigma. We’re uncomfortable talking about mental health, because talking about our feelings makes us vulnerable. Nobody wants to feel vulnerable, especially in a new environment where first impressions can be so important. But mental health is serious. Depression can mean the difference between graduating or dropping out, having a large circle of friends or isolating oneself, and having a positive college experience or despising college.
This doesn’t mean we all need to sit in a circle, sing acoustic covers of Morrissey and take turns talking about our feelings. But it does mean we need to be away of our mental health, and take care of our minds in the same way we take care of our bodies. I encourage all students returning to UAA to take just a moment to think about their mental health, and how they can maintain it. Acknowledge that you are in a new environment, and stress is a perfectly normal reaction to the world around you. Think about healthy ways you will cope with the stress that you will inevitably encounter this semester. Think about people in your life you trust, and can talk to if things become overwhelming. This doesn’t need to be an hour-long introspective meditation. Take fifteen minutes out of your day, and think about it.
This is especially true for young men. Not because men need it more, but because they find it harder to acknowledge their mental health. If you are a male, and you are reading this, hear me now. Think about five people you know. Two of those people will suffer from depressive symptoms this semester. One of those five people will suffer from major depression, a very serious condition, before college is over. It’s important that these individuals know they can get help, and most importantly: there’s nothing wrong with being depressed.
When your body catches a cold, you deal with it. You take it easy, perhaps take some cold medication, and you give yourself the tools you need to recover quickly. Do not hesitate to give your mind the same consideration.