Enlighten Me: Making mental health a priority for young people
May is Mental Health Awareness month - an opportunity to work to erase stigmas, educate the public, and advocate for those with mental illnesses.
And while progress has been made in these areas, Univ. of Delaware senior and Delaware Public Median intern Gabrielle Wuensch reports there’s still work to be done - especially among young people.
Frat parties, spring break vacations, and dirty stay outs - all the things graduates reminisce about and some TV shows glorify. College is supposed to be the best time of your life, but college students, like University of Delaware senior, Mackenzie Ricci, also face an extreme amount of pressure.
“I’m a student here so I take seven classes, trying to finish a double major and a minor, and then I’m also interviewing for jobs next year so during the week gets a little hectic,” said Ricci.
From juggling classes, jobs, and hanging out with friends, it’s no wonder the National Institute of Mental Health found that young adults aged 18-25 have the highest prevalence of serious mental illness compared to other age groups.
“So, I go to therapy primarily for my anxiety disorder, I also have ADHD, and I on and off am suicidal, actually. And I have depression,” said UD junior Gina Cosenza.
UD’s Assistant Vice President in the Division of Student Life and Wellness, Rae Chresfield is a National Certified Counselor. She explains how, if left untreated, poor mental health can impair many aspects of life.
“Be it social, like ‘I’m so overwhelmed I don’t even talk to anybody anymore.’ Some people maintain the social, but don’t do their work, right? So, they’re like ‘I know I have a paper due, I'm supposed to study for a test, but being with my friends makes me feel less overwhelmed. So, I just hang out with my friends rather than do my work.’ Some people it shows up physically. ‘I have headaches, stomach aches because I'm just so worried,’” said Chresfield.
And this is something many college students struggle with, some more than others. Students who live in honors Living Learning Communities tend to hesitate to open up about their mental health needs. UD resident assistant and student, Gershom Shahid, explains.
“A lot of them keep to themselves, and kind of like ‘Oh yeah, I just gotta get through it.’ But again, it plays into expectations. Like you know, ‘Oh I can’t appear weak,’” Shahid continued. “And also, a lot of my residents are, you know, computer science or, like, engineering. It’s very, very competitive.”
That's why I say that mental health and wellness is something that you have to learn to maintain. I encourage people to pay attention to when you are getting stressed, rather than when you're at ten and you can't do anything."UD Assistant Vice President in the Division of Student Life and Wellness Rae Chresfield
The common theme is stress. And stress can be exhibited in a number of ways, varying from person to person.
For Cosenza, something as simple as putting laundry away can be extremely difficult.
“I get frozen. I get so frozen when I have things to do,” said Cosenza .“Today, for example, I had to put my laundry away, simply put my laundry away. I kept looking at the bag and being like ‘I need to just do it’ and then I would move on to do something else because laundry was daunting.”
And while exercises like focused breathing, meditation, or verbal affirmations can be effective when navigating stressful situations, Chresfield believes the best way to combat stress is to take precautionary measures - manage it before it gets out of hand, rather than try to backpedal.
“And that's why I say that mental health and wellness is something that you have to learn to maintain,” she said. “I encourage people to pay attention to when you are getting stressed rather than when you're at ten and you can't do anything, you don't know where you're going, can't find your keys, you've lost your cell phone 13 times in the last five minutes. That's 10. But learning ‘when am I at a five?’' when can I still address it?’”
And when you can’t seem to navigate things on your own, an unbiased ear might be what you need. But finding the right therapist is easier said than done.
In order for therapy to be effective, you need to be completely open and honest, which can be difficult, especially with a stranger. Those who belong to marginalized groups may have even more trouble finding a therapist they feel comfortable with.
“So many mental health practitioners, one, are white. It would be a stretch to say that 3% of psychologists in the US are black […] indigenous might be less than 1%. Somebody who is fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese or Urdu or something, you might not find those people at all. So, depending on your intersectionality, you might not have anybody that you could find to talk to,” said Chresfield.
Shahid believes having a therapist who identifies with you is very beneficial.
“I think it would be nice that we had more therapists that looked like us,” he said. "I was fortunate enough that when I did therapy here, like, through the university, I had a therapist that was the same sexual orientation as me and was also a person of color, and that really helped because they really understood what I was going through.”
Not only is there a lack of diversity among mental health professionals, but a general misunderstanding of what it means to prioritize mental health.
UD senior, Thomas Perucki, explains how the lack of awareness made him feel ostracized as a child.
“I think the conflict within my own household led to me being a little bit less confident in myself and it crept into school and social life, and so I felt like a bit of an outsider and it seemed a little bit taboo, but like I said, as things happened it seemed like the mental health awareness was reactionary. I wish it would just be promoted right off the bat,” Perucki explained.
“Realistically our statistics are supposed to be 250 students to one school counselor. I just came from a school where it was almost 900 students and 2 school counselors. There’s no way that we can service all those students with fidelity, there’s just no way.”Harlan Elementary School counselor, Ciara Carter
And a huge problem with normalizing mental health is exactly that - it’s not talked about. Many children are forced into therapy not understanding what it is, and sometimes parents neglect their child’s mental health entirely.
It’s important for parents to be conscious of the way they speak to and about their children, according to Harlan Elementary School counselor, Ciara Carter.
“So, if you have a parent who is emotionally abusive or a parent who is just not informed and doesn’t really know what to say to you, then you start to take in what they say and make that your inner voice. So, it lowers your self-esteem,” Carter said.
But this issue extends beyond the home, as Carter notes that resources and funding to identify and address issues early are often lacking in schools.
“Realistically our statistics are supposed to be 250-to-one, so 250 students to one school counselor,” Carter continued “I just came from a school where it was almost 900 students and 2 school counselors, and I had most of the grade. So, I had about 500 students and my counterpart had like 400 students. There’s no way that we can service all those students with fidelity, there’s just no way.”
While the ultimate goal is societal change in the way mental health is viewed and prioritized, it starts on an individual level. Each and every person needs to make an active effort to make that change a reality.
“I think having good mental health is the foundation for so much more success everywhere else in life,” said Perucki “I just think mental health awareness, and especially having someone to talk to, is a great foundation to getting to a point where you can start to make good decisions for yourself, and the benefits are everywhere, it’s great.”