LEONARD: Comprehensive understanding

Mental illness is a multifaceted problem about which students should try to educate themselves

The Healthy Minds Survey conducted by the University in 2013 found that 33 percent of University students felt that they needed some kind of counseling, though only 17 percent actually sought help. Nationally, 37 percent of students felt they needed professional help while 18 percent received it. I think these statistics can provide some insight into how University students interpret their own mental health needs. Most every student at the University has heard the saying, “work hard, play hard.” Students at this elite university often feel obligated to go out on weekends, or at the very least have a very active social life, be super involved with multiple organizations (think: leadership positions) and — on top of all that — get amazing grades.

Or at least, this is the stereotype for how students feel. This stereotype is what we, as Peer Health Educators (PHEs) in Student Health’s Office of Health Promotion, discuss during the training course, and later during continuing education sessions at meetings. The thing is, I think this stereotype is useful when discussing mental health issues like stress, or why students often are sleep deprived (getting less than 7-9 hours). However, for those out there (like me) suffering from more serious conditions, like clinical anxiety and depression, the usual “work-hard play-hard” syndrome doesn’t really explain why half of students struggling from mental health issues don’t seek help.

First, let me briefly explain the difference between stress and anxiety/depression. Stress often has a traceable cause: a test coming up, a paper, a big game…etc. Anxiety and depression are diagnosable medical conditions indicated by emotions of (often extreme) chronic stress or sadness, even in the absence of a typical stressor (like an exam). Of course, there are consistent triggers; mine for example, are school related, but often panic attacks can be triggered by something that to an outsider seems like a silly thing to be upset about. Panic attacks or depressive states can’t just be “gotten over.” Often the person suffering has to wait it out.

In my training class, one particular bit of research by Prochaska and DiClemente stuck out to me: If I stand in front of one hundred people teaching about making a healthy change, only twenty of those people will be considering change. The other eighty people will either not know they have a problem or they know they have a problem but not feel obligated to change their behavior (or, alternatively, they’ve already made the healthy change). Obviously this is an approximation, but the point is still poignant: most people don’t like to change, or even just admit they have an issue that needs talking about. I am proposing that this social phenomenon might be a good addition to the explanation for why students don’t always go for help.

When I think about the typical University student, I think of someone who is passionate, motivated, and dislikes things getting in the way of their dreams and desires. In my mind, the consequences of not dealing with a psychological condition (I prefer not to use “disorder”) seem significant enough that most students would want to take action. Yet students don’t.

I once had a conversation with someone about going to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). She told me she didn’t believe in therapy. I remember this bothered me because I had been to therapy when I needed help getting through a tough time. I didn’t want to go initially though, either; my mother encouraged me. And here is where I think a lot of students get

Going to therapy is a really big decision, and I think many students have difficulty justifying that their problems are big enough to warrant talking to a specialist. They might think, “I can get through this myself; it’s not worth talking to someone who doesn’t even know me.” Also, making the decision to go to therapy, in a way, validates the problem. It’s not like you can go to therapy and say, “Oh I don’t really have a problem; I’ve just been feeling funny lately.” Or you can, but then why are you there?

The answer to the question of why some students who feel like they need counseling don’t seek professional help is more complicated than it might appear. It’s not simply that students are embarrassed, because so many of my friends have been to CAPS and aren’t afraid to say it. It isn’t just the “work hard, play hard” environment, because although I don’t have statistics to back this up, it’s entirely possible that students going to CAPS have no interest in “playing hard” and don’t feel badly about that. And though many students may be hesitant to admit their anxiety or depression might be diagnosable, this can’t account for all of the students who felt like they needed professional help but didn’t seek it. The greater picture for why students delay going for help can be summed up as follows: mental health is tricky. It’s hard to decide for oneself if the anxiety felt during the semester is due to the stress of being at an elite university, or if the cause goes deeper. So, beyond working up the courage to go, first the student has to realize that they need help; not only that, but that it is okay to ask for help!

Part of what PHEs do is spread awareness and understanding to the student body — we are trying to start a dialogue, one that can help students feel empowered to make their own health decisions. Mental health at the University isn’t a topic frequently discussed, but I think it should be. We are all Wahoos; we all have different reasons as to why we might or might not want to seek help. As we all grow together, hopefully we can open a dialogue of acceptance and support for those among us who need a little extra help. The PHEs host a Mental Wellness Screening day once a semester: that might be a good place to start.

Here are some resources for those with mental health concerns:

Ainsworth Clinic (Gilmer Hall): (434) 982-4737

CAPS (Student Health): (434) 243-5150

CAPS After Hours and Weekend Crisis Assistance: (434) 972-7004

HealthQuest via the CAPS website

Project RISE—dedicated specifically towards peer education outreach to African-
American students: (434) 924-7923

Center for Clinical Psychological Services (Bavaro Hall): (434) 924-7034

UVa Women’s Center: (434) 982-2361

Best wishes and happy thoughts!

Anna Leonard is a third-year in the College and a Peer Health Educator.

Published April 23, 2014 in Opinion

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