By Ross Szabo, Author Behind Happy Faces
Every week I read new studies, reports, or articles letting us know what’s wrong with college students today. They’re stressed out more than ever. They’re not sleeping. They’re abusing prescription medications. They’re overweight. They’re depressed. The list goes on and on. In some ways it’s like society is normalizing these problems for students instead of giving them skills to deal with what’s happening. Students hear the news and are overwhelmed when they identify with these issues, but where are the solutions?
In response to these studies, an endless amount of mental health, mental illness, and suicide awareness campaigns address these problems. Grassroots organizations use PSAs, websites, and marketing materials to highlight helpful information to reach affected populations with messaging that students should seek help and end stigma. There are more young mental health advocates today than ever before. Students are standing up and giving a voice to these issues to empower others to come forward.
Moving Beyond Mental Health Awareness
We definitely need to continue the mental health awareness efforts that are being done on campuses. But, we also need to go further. Most universities have been focused on training faculty, parents, and students on what to do when someone has a mental health challenge, but typically the only thing we tell someone who is experiencing a problem is to seek help.
In some ways this is like telling everyone else what to do when someone has a heart condition, without giving the person with the condition any idea of what they can do for themselves. Mental health has to be the only public health issue where we attempt to prepare everyone for a crisis, but don’t give the individuals who are experiencing the problems the tools they need to address their emotions.
This approach creates numerous problems. Counseling centers are overwhelmed. Students can’t afford to seek help off campus. The lucky ones who have access to mental health treatment have to start developing coping skills for the first time in therapy, instead of learning these skills from a younger age. The earlier a person identifies a mental health disorder and accepts it, the better chance they have to manage the issue. Unfortunately, most people are being told they should seek help only after something significant has changed in their lives, instead of receiving proactive education from a young age.
Mind Well Makes a Difference
UCLA has been doing tremendous work to help students with educational efforts from the Mind Well pod of the Healthy Campus Initiative. The goal of Mind Well is to promote wellness of mind, brain and spirit, foster creativity, and enhance social connectedness throughout the UCLA community.
Mind Well has hosted events to educate students about sleep, meditation, mindfulness, and happiness. What makes their approach so successful is full student involvement. For example, this past spring, two students won a contest by creating their own mindfulness-coloring book and successfully distributing it to thousands of students at UCLA as well as other campuses.
Mind Well is currently conducting a Mind Lexicon study to determine the words students use to describe their emotions and assess if students know the meaning of commonly used mental health terms. The results will be a baseline to enhance outreach and educational efforts.
We need to start teaching mental health the same way we teach physical health. Mind Well helps make learning about difficult topics more approachable. Students get the chance to better understand brain development, what affects their moods, how to change coping mechanisms, the symptoms of mental health disorders, and how to manage their mental health.
For more information about our work on campus, visit our website.