Ross Szabo is CEO of the Human Power Project.
I stared out of the window of the psychiatric ward in utter disbelief that my freshman year of college had ended, after only two months. I went to American University with so much hope. College was going to be the place where I moved forward with my life. A setting where I could meet new people, make new friends, and finally get out of my small town. I was also hoping to no longer be haunted by my bipolar disorder that plagued me in high school. Unfortunately, the change to a new environment brought out the worst episodes I had ever seen.
After days of uncontrollable mind racing thoughts, I binge drank to shut my brain down. Nights of heavy drinking eventually led to hopeless depression, thoughts of suicide, and extreme loneliness. Then the hallucinations surfaced. Slowly at first with me just hearing my name, but the delusions built to assaulting voices telling me to hurt myself, and others. Luckily, I had the awareness to call my parents and tell them I needed to come home.
It took me six long years of different colleges, treatment plans and hard work before I returned to American University and finished my degree. Now, as I travel around the country regularly speaking to college freshmen orientations, I look out at the thousands of eager students, and let them know college is a great time for them to work on their mental health. It’s a time of growth and newness that offers some of the best opportunities to learn about oneself.
Here are some vital mental health tips as students get back to class:
1. Change can be a trigger. The first time you’re on your own it can be a really freeing feeling. However, that major change can also bring out a person’s first episode of a mental health disorder or cause a lot of anxiety/nervousness. Finding a healthy way to deal with the change like talking about the emotions with friends/family, writing about it, exercising, or connecting with others are healthy steps.
2. Get some sleep. Most students didn’t sleep a lot in high school and typically they sleep less in college. The brain doesn’t fully mature until the age of 25. Getting more than six hours of sleep helps the brain continue to develop, allows a person to retain more knowledge, and provides better health overall. The myth of pulling all nighters for last minute papers or studying is never more effective than getting sleep.
3. Think About How You Cope. The ways that students cope with difficult events like rejection, loss and change in high school can carry over to college. The longer a person uses a coping mechanism the harder it can be to change. Students who come to college that are coping by isolating themselves, abusing drugs/alcohol, zoning out with TV or video games, or other negative methods have a chance to take time and develop healthier ways to cope with life’s challenges.
4. If You Have a Mental Health Disorder Have a Plan. For students that already have a diagnosed mental health disorder, it’s vital to know what support you need before you go to college. Talking to a mental health professional to determine what kinds of resources are available is a good first step. Have regular check ins with family/friends to monitor any changes. Set up an appointment with the counseling center to learn more about what is available on campus. Try to normalize mental health as a part of a student’s life rather than solely focusing on or isolating the mental health disorder.
5. Make Mistakes. Students feel a lot of pressure to never mess up or fail, but those experiences are a part of life and can help people become much stronger. As students go through a process of learning about themselves, mistakes are bound to happen. The best way to achieve positive mental health is to learn from past mistakes.