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.

To download an easy-to-print version of this column click here.

Mind Matters Column July 5 2015 College

 

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Robin Williams’ Suicide Brings Mental Health Issues to the Forefront

By Stacy Knott, Coordinator, Compeer Niagara for Adults
sbowman@mhanc.comTransit Drive In

“While we are deeply saddened by Mr. Williams’ unfortunate passing, we can celebrate his greatest efforts to lift our spirits by entertaining us with his movies, while hoping to provide help to others who someday may need their own spirits lifted on their darkest of days.” – Transit Drive-In

Note: This past fall, the Transit Drive-In Theater in Lockport, NY, selected the Mental Health Association in Niagara County as the designated charity for a Robin Williams triple feature film tribute on Labor Day weekend, as well as a double-feature tribute the following weekend. During the films, the Mental Health Association was on-hand to present educational materials to the public at an information booth. Stacy Knott managed the table several evenings and observed the public reaction.

I personally had the pleasure of sitting at the table for hours and disseminated countless pieces of literature but what struck me the most were the questions from so many in wonder of how could someone with so much going for them, possibly feel depressed to the point of suicide? It made no sense to them that an individual with so much money and fame could take their own life. Undoubtedly, there’s a certain amount of reason for this belief but the reality is that depression (like all mental illnesses) doesn’t take personal factors into account. Depression can affect anyone at any time.

I also discovered by running the table that the stigma of a mental illness is a huge problem. It was almost as though many feared approaching the table because the table cloth read “Mental Health Association”. Each time I walked away and the table was “safe” to approach for free information, several gathered round. Although I was elated that the information was being sought out, it was disheartening to see firsthand that people with a mental illness often suffer more from the stigma than they do from the illness itself. It drives many away from getting the professional help they need based on fear of what others will think.

Williams actually died of a disease—a terrible, terrible disease. Depression consumed the man, and it killed him, too, even if it used his hands to do it. I can’t help but think: if we as a society talked more frankly and openly and without shame about depression, if we took depression more seriously as a disease rather than as an issue of deficient willpower or character, maybe we wouldn’t lose so many irreplaceable  people—our heroes, our visionaries, our friends, our family—year after year”

-Graham Bishop

Typically, glamorizing suicide is the absolute worst thing you can do but in Williams’ death, it seems as though the media created an opportunity for people to open up about their own struggles. Thank you, Transit Drive-In, for offering this tribute and for selecting our agency to participate. Our agency searches for various opportunities to break down the stigma surrounding mental health. It is the selfless generosity from large-hearted people that continue to make it possible for us to take on this issue.


This article first appeared in 2014 fall edition of our newsletter, The Voice.