Opinion | College students, your mental health will not improve on its own

By Leah Mensch, Opinions Editor

One in five college students reported suicidal thoughts in a 2018 survey.

Had someone told me this when I was preparing to start my first year at Pitt, I would have been baffled. But as I prepare for the start of my senior year, I can say without a doubt that, if anything, the number of students considering suicide is probably underreported. And, really, suicide is just the tip of the iceberg.

Colleges are facing a mental health crisis. This is to say — if you’ve never experienced mental health issues, you probably will in college. If you’re already experiencing mental health issues, moving to campus will not fix them, and moving to campus will not make them better — no matter how ideal the independent, adult life in college seems. You cannot enter a major life transition period and expect that to cure constant stress and dysfunction of brain chemistry. If you don’t actively treat your mental health issues, they will not get better on their own. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. I am not saying this to scare you, but I am saying this because you need to be prepared for the challenges you’re going to face during your time at Pitt. You need to equip yourself with the best resources possible to succeed.

Universities are petri dishes for mental illness. And it’s not just depression rates that are astronomically high. Eating disorders run rampant, and on top of pressure to look a certain way, studies show that people between the ages of 18 and 21 are most susceptible to developing an eating-related mental illness. Recent studies suggest that as many as 20% of college-aged students who identify as women could have an eating disorder. More than a fourth of students reported that they experienced debilitating anxiety in a 2017 survey. Other health conditions — like bipolar disorder — also typically begin to appear in the late teens and early 20s.

And the various life stressors college students face don’t help the onset of these conditions. General academic stress is one of the main factors that plays into declining mental health and, luckily, there are ways to manage stress on campus — time management, exercise and goal-setting, to name a few. But there are other stressors that are harder to manage, like parental pressure, the shock of sudden independence and financial burdens. Reports show that 69% of students have to take out loans to pay for their education, and from a public university like Pitt, the average student graduates with an average debt of more than $25,000.

Scientists generally agree that stress catalyzes the onset of mental health issues. This means, for example, a student could be genetically predisposed to a condition like depression or bulimia but not begin to actually suffer from the illness — or else experience worsened symptoms — until they face major sources of stress in their lives. This is part of what makes untreated stress threatening to mental health.

Some students might be lucky enough to avoid some of these stressors, but as a full-time or even part-time student, there is just no way to completely avoid all stress factors. Instead of trying to avoid or ignore stress, students need to find ways to mitigate stress. And stress management such as exercise is great, but it probably isn’t going to be sufficient in the long term. The good news is that there are ways to manage stress and mental health, so long as you prepare and utilize them.

If you already work with a therapist, psychiatrist or other mental health professional at home, make plans to continue working with them remotely when you move to Pitt. If you’d rather find a mental health professional here, whom you can see face-to-face when public health allows, start doing your research now. Ask for referrals if you’d rather not see a therapist through the University Counseling Center. Make sure the therapist takes your insurance and talk to them on the phone before classes start, so you can make sure they’re right for you. That way, when you move to Oakland, you’ll already have a working relationship with them.

The Counseling Center also offers resources such as group therapy, psychiatry referrals for medication and other health professionals — like dieticians — who might be of service to you while you settle into college life. Don’t be afraid to use these resources. And if you have concerns about your mental health in college, don’t ignore your gut. Talk to your doctor, your parents or anyone you trust about this. Make sure you have someone who can check in on you at school. Don’t let yourself get to a bad place before you start seeking assistance.

You are not the exception. I say this most honestly, as someone who — three years ago —  thought they were the exception. Many of my mental health issues were tied to living in the suburbs, but when I moved to the city, they just manifested differently and more intensely. Because of this, I had to spend most of my first year commuting from home. It was what I needed to do back then, and I don’t regret that year. I’ve found a very happy place for myself at Pitt, and I’ve been fine ever since. But I wish I had listened to people when they told me I wouldn’t get better without taking actions like calling a therapist and not ignoring stress factors. I could have gotten to this happy place far earlier.

If you start early, taking care of yourself before you feel like you’re in dire need, you’re likely going to be able to manage stress perfectly fine. Mental health conditions that are treated early on have the best prognosis. This isn’t to say that every day is going to be a breeze, but long term, you’ll likely be able to function and do everything a college student wants to do.

College is hard. But college years are also when you meet some of your lifelong friends, where you have the opportunity to study what you love and find interests you didn’t even know existed prior. There are so many things you won’t be able to control on campus, but one thing you can do is put yourself in the best position possible to succeed. Be on the defense.

You’ll be OK — more than OK — but you have to be prepared for the challenges you’re going to face.

Leah is the opinions editor and writes primarily about cumin, literature and life’s other necessities. Write to Leah at [email protected].