Everyone always says that your college years are the best years of your life. Sure, it’s where you meet your best friends and make lifelong memories, but it’s also a time of exorbitant amounts of stress, messy relationships, anxiety about the future and often loneliness. But these are the things no one talks about. We ask how someone is doing, and we wait for them to say, “Good, how are you?” Then we keep walking and toss our response over our shoulder, regardless of whether or not it’s true. When has anyone ever said in passing, “Actually, I’m not doing very well at all. I had a panic attack this morning, and I’m really overwhelmed with everything.” We don’t want to reveal this information about ourselves. But, in reality, it’s normal to struggle with mental health issues. Unfortunately, that’s a concept we haven’t quite grasped yet as a society.
The National Union of Students conducted a survey in 2015, which revealed that 78 percent of students have struggled with mental health issues at some point in time within the past year. Perhaps what is most shocking is that 54 percent of that 78 percent did not seek any help.
While it might not seem like these statistics would apply to your school, think twice. It’s true—many campuses foster an open, supportive, friendly environment that might lead you to believe that anyone struggling with mental health would feel comfortable seeking help. Yes, most schools have counseling centers, but how many people actually take advantage of those services? There are numerous campaigns and mental health awareness weeks, which is great, but how many people are talking seriously to each other about mental health? This lack of dialogue can be largely attributed to the negative stigma that has been attached to the hip of mental health since its original recognition.
Another factor that hasn’t gained as much attention yet is the effects of social media on college students, especially freshmen dealing with mental health issues. With Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it has become nearly impossible to avoid comparing yourself to others, which can be devastatingly destructive. Three years ago as a freshman, I remember looking at my friends’ posts—their smiling faces, their new best friends, the parties, the memories they were making. I felt alone. I felt like I was behind in some way—that I was the only one without permanent friends and confidence. But, as it turns out, everyone is trying to make it look like they have everything together. No one is posting pictures of the nights spent crying in the dorm shower. No one is posting pictures alone, unhappy, lacking confidence. Instead, we’re all walking around afraid—afraid of being judged, afraid of being perceived as weak or pathetic. And that's when things can spiral out of control. An article from the New York Times revealed that in the United States, "the suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds has increased modestly but steadily since 2007."
That same article went on to describe a report produced by Duke University, which described "how its female students felt pressure to be 'effortlessly perfect': smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort." I don't think the word "accomplished" actually does justice to everything that is encompassed by that word. In college, we're expected to excel academically in addition to being a star athlete or musician. On top of that, we're supposed to be looking for an internship or a grant opportunity. Then senior year rolls around and there's pressure to land some cool job before the end of the school year. But don't forget to make time for friends, significant others and sleep! It's no wonder our mental health is on the line.
Society is making great strides in facilitating a dialogue about mental health issues, but in the end it comes down to us. Are we willing to talk to someone—our friends, professors, counselors—about our problems? And are we willing to listen when others do the same?
Because that’s what it comes down to—a judgment free zone, someone willing to listen and someone brave enough to start the conversation.