College prep should include mental health awareness

college grad graphic

Graduation is typically a day of hope, but parents should help prepare recent high school grads for the stresses of college, says Mind Matters columnist Pamela Szalay.

Do you know a young person going off to college for the first time, or returning to college this fall?

This is an exciting time for students who have spent years preparing academically. Yet despite that preparation, most students will encounter significant amounts of stress while in college to the point of feeling overwhelmed. Some even report feeling hopeless. Mental health issues are a growing concern on college campuses. According to Dr. Timothy Osberg, a psychology professor at Niagara University, college students are arriving on campuses across the nation with more frequent and more severe mental health problems. Reports over the last several months have been alarming as high suicide rates have been reported at the University of Pennsylvania, Tulane University, Appalachian State University, and the College of William and Mary.

What can be done to protect young people? Awareness is the key. Students and parents should realize that mental health issues are a real concern on today’s college campuses. But they are very treatable— and the sooner, the better. Also, students should learn how to manage stress in healthy ways and take advantage of additional resources if needed. They should never hesitate to seek help.

Unfortunately, many students do not seek help. Instead they cope in unhealthy ways such as ignoring the problem or turning to substances. Students may need coaching in developing healthy responses to stress, such as meditation, deep-breathing, regular relaxation, maintaining social supports and getting more sleep and exercise. They will also need to be made aware of campus support systems such as wellness centers or counseling services. They need to know who to turn to when they are feeling alone, anxious or depressed.

Ideally, all campus staff and students should be educated about recognizing and responding to early warning signs, such as a loss of interest in typical activities, social withdrawal, lower performance in school, or changes in mood or appetite. Early intervention can prevent more serious issues from developing.

To prepare for success in college, add this to your list: find out what mental health resources are available on campus. For example, what protocols are there campus-wide for responding to mental health issues? What kind of training do Residence Hall advisors have for recognizing a potential mental health crisis?

Also, find out the exact location and name of the campus counseling or wellness center.

Get the phone number and make sure it gets posted in your son or daughter’s dorm room and even programmed into a cell phone contact list. Label it with something easy to remember, like “counseling” or “help on campus.”

Another important contact to add is the local crisis services* phone number or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Prevention and awareness are critical in supporting the mental health of college students. Armed with some basic self-help knowledge and the assurance that there is a caring support system in place, students are given a greater chance of succeeding and thriving in higher education.

*For assistance in Niagara County, NY, please call the Help Line at (716) 433-5432 or visit the online Help Book.


Original publication date: July 5, 2015. Mind Matters is a regular column of the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal.

Pamela SzalayPamela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

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Mind Matters Column July 5 2015 College

 

Support groups offer friendly and effective therapy

TitleRe-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

paper cutoutsPicture this: you are facing a crisis. Maybe you just got diagnosed with major depression or a chronic illness, or perhaps you have suffered a significant loss. What do you do? In addition to receiving treatment from doctors and professional, you are likely to seek out emotional support and even advice from family and friends. But sometimes more is needed. When faced with a stressful life challenge, receiving emotional support is an important part of accepting, adjusting and recovering. While your friends or family may be there for you, sometimes they are not able to offer all the help you need or even understand what you are really going through.

So where can you find a safe place where others in the same situation are willing to listen to you, share their own experiences and even offer advice and support?

A mutual aid support group can provide just that. Support groups can be considered “informal therapy” as no referral is required, the meetings are often led by peers, and there is no commitment. A professional may serve merely as an advisor or co-facilitator, and you can be as passive or as active as you’d like. This provides a great deal of flexibility and convenience, which may be exactly what you need to convince yourself it’s worth a try.

How effective can peer-led, mutual aid support groups be? In many situations, research is proving it to be comparable to one-on-one therapy with a professional. One study looked at people suffering from moderate depression and found that there was little difference in the outcome for those attending peer-led mutual support groups versus those working with trained therapists. For bereaved parents, involvement in a support group led to a greater sense of control and decreased depression, guilt and anger. Similar findings were found in groups for the elderly, former mental health patients and those diagnosed with a chronic illness.

The level of participation in a support group does make a difference.Studies have shown that individuals with strong attendance and involvement in the group have the best outcomes. In the area of substance abuse, for example, high attendance at a self-help meeting was related to lower use of alcohol.Additionally, members of support groups who were highly active tended to report higher levels of self-esteem and more effective coping skills.

There are many theories about why support groups work. First, there is the social aspect which contributes to reduced feelings of isolation. There is an instant sense of community when people identify with each other and relate to each others’ struggles.Second, the members of the group offer a pool of knowledge that is a professional is unlikely to have.Support group members have “inside information” cultivated from their own experience, which can be a great help to other members making decisions about treatment, personal matters and more.Finally, there is the effect of “helper therapy”. Those members who contribute to the group by helping others tend to feel better and make better progress in their journey to recovery.

As sensible as all this may seem, people can still find many reasons to avoid attending a support group even if they are struggling. A big reason is stigma.While it can be difficult for people to admit they need help, a bigger fear is admitting this to others. They may feel uncomfortable with nurturing their emotional life and fear that others will view them as week or needy.Worse yet, they may fear being associated with anything related to mental health.

If you feel you could benefit from a support group but have concerns about how people will look at you, remember you are not taking your acquaintances with you to the meetings.They will not be privy to your thoughts and feelings. An advantage of a support group is that the people there are strangers, so you have not reputation to maintain.Plus, a general rule among support group members is “no judgment”. Support groups are places of confidence where you can safely share whatever is on your mind.

Finding the right support group for you may take a little effort, but there are many resources available. Some groups are even available online.The Mental Health Association in Niagara County maintains a list of support groups and even sponsors several in Lockport and Niagara Falls. They also provide periodic trainings for support group leaders and have resources for individuals who wish to start one. For more information, visit www.mhanc.com or call 716-433-3780.


The original publication date was February 15, 2015 under the title Crisis Control: Getting by with a little help from your group. Mind Matters is a regular column of the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal.

PamePamela.imagela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.

Facts over fear: The myths and truths of mental health

Group of Friends with Arms Around Each Other

Re-printed by permission from Greater Niagara Newspapers.

How common is mental illness? Chances are you know someone who suffers from some form of a diagnosable mental health problem. Every day you may encounter people at work, at school, at the mall and maybe even at home. Does this seem possible?

The reason the prevalence of mental illness comes as a surprise to many of us is that we just don’t understand what mental illness is, we don’t talk about it and, as a society, we tend to buy into the myths instead of the facts. The National Institute of Mental Health asserts that nearly 20 percent of the adult population in the United States had a diagnosable mental illness in 2012—about 44 million adults. This number includes people who are minimally impaired. So while you may interact with people who suffer from depression or anxiety, the illness is not obvious.

This has a couple of implications. The good news is that if you realize that mental illness is common and does not necessarily disrupt a normal life, then you might start viewing mental illness as less threatening. On the other hand, if it is so common, then why do we know so little about it? Why don’t we talk about as easily as we might talk about physical ailments? Why don’t we have more support systems in place to help the millions of individuals who are dealing with mental illness in all its forms?

At the root of all these questions is the problem of stigma. Misconceptions and stereotypes about mental illness prevent us from dealing with it openly and honestly. We take the fear instead of the facts. As a result, many people avoid addressing issues with their own mental health and people with a diagnosis suffer from discrimination.

Many of our fears are based on the misguided belief that all mental health disorders are life-long, debilitating ailments that have no effective treatments. The facts are that many disorders may last less than a year, can have mild symptoms that do not impact work, and can be resolved with proven solution-centered talk therapies in a reasonably short period of time. In many cases, no drugs are needed.

Another common myth is that mentally ill people are dangerous. However, statistics have shown that the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime rather than the perpetrator. Sadly, the headlines in the media often dramatize the opposite message. As a result, we reinforce our negative stereotypes and build another reason to fear mental illness.

Still another myth is that people with a mental illness are weird, crazy, socially awkward or inappropriate. We think we would be afraid around them, and may even avoid people when we learn they have a diagnosis. Yet in reality, there are “normal” people all around us who might battle depression, cope with a phobia, take medication for bipolar, or receive regular therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. Someone with a mental illness can hold a job, raise a family, or be a volunteer. They may seem more well-adjusted and less stressed than you feel. They may even have better coping skills as a result of training and cognitive-behavior therapy.

Since the topic of mental illness is not a comfortable topic for most people, the myths remain unchallenged. Those with a diagnosis are reluctant to admit it for fear of being treated differently. Yet this leaves the misleading impression that mental illness is not relevant to all our lives. Worse yet, people who need help are often afraid to ask for it, and may not even know where to start getting help.

In the months ahead, I will continue to explore myths and truths about mental health, all in an effort to break down the stigma of mental illness and encourage people to get the help they need. If you need assistance, please call the MHA at (716) 433-3780. We are here for you!


Note: This article was first published for Greater Niagara Newspapers (Lockport Union-Sun Journal, Niagara Gazette and Tonawanda News) on November 16, 2014.

Pamela Szalay is the Director of Marketing and Operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.