Sarah O'Malley

Sarah O’Malley is a fourth-year Journalism student from Boston, MA who has since moved to Orono, ME to study at the University of Maine. She is a staff writer for the Culture section and enjoys attending events, meeting new people, and learning more about UMaine and its students. In her free time she enjoys hiking, cooking, watching documentaries, and playing with dogs.

So, you’ve read the title. If you’re still reading, chances are you’ve been struggling lately, or maybe you know someone who is. That’s okay, believe me, most college students deal with mental health issues at one point or another; not everyone has a mental illness, but everyone deals with mental health. Our workloads are intense, finances are strained, relationships are tough, the world seems kind of crazy and to top it off the days are cold and dark. But just know there are resources and people right here on this campus who want to help, and steps you can take yourself to get back on track.

But first, who am I to give advice? What can I tell you that you don’t already know, and on what grounds do I stand to give advice about mental health? Honestly, I’m not sure. All I can tell you is I’ve been there myself. I’ve dealt with depression, anxiety and mood swings, sometimes all in the same day.

When I was 13 years old, I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. I spent most of high school struggling to come to terms with this new reality, taking daily pills and attending weekly psychiatrist and therapist appointments. I spent so long being ashamed of my diagnosis that it wasn’t until I was hospitalized for a suicide attempt at age 17 that I finally told my sister and brother what was going on. It took a long time for me to admit to myself that I needed help, and I spent years in a dark place with no hope of escape. But gradually, with support from family and friends and a lot of daily effort on my part, I was able to stabilize my life. It’s been years since my hospitalization, and now I’m about to graduate college, a feat I could have never predicted I would accomplish. I am even the president of the student group Active Minds, dedicated to de-stigmatizing mental health and advocating for better treatment and resources for people dealing with mental health issues. I’m much more open about my diagnosis. I’m not ashamed anymore to tell people I’m bipolar. Quite the contrary — I want people to know that it’s possible to live with a diagnosis like bipolar II disorder, which is treatable but never curable, and still thrive and be a functioning part of society. I have even published articles about my experiences, prompting strangers to approach me at parties and bars to admit to me that they were struggling too. It’s hard to admit that, and it’s hard to reach out. I know it isn’t easy. But I have found that the following list of advice has helped me in the past, and I believe it could be of help to you too.

Talk to someone about what’s going on. That someone could be your mom or dad, brother or sister, friend, mentor, teacher, sorority or fraternity member, or even a stranger, but it helps to talk. I know it’s scary, and it’s not without consequence. I once told a girl I thought to be a close friend about my diagnosis in high school, only to be given a disgusted look and a prompt goodbye. But I’m still glad I did. She wasn’t a true friend. I’ve also had the experience of telling a girl I thought to be a close friend about my diagnosis in college, only to be surprised that she too had the same diagnosis. We were able to talk and relate about our shared experience (we were even on the same medication) and became closer for it. The act of reaching out can be terrifying, but so rewarding. Gather the courage I know you have and give that someone the chance to impress you with their compassion. You won’t regret it.

Make an appointment with the Counseling Center. They cater to hundreds of college students every week and are trained to deal with so many issues college students face. Open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every weekday, call them at (207) 581-1392 to book a free appointment.

Stop by the Mind Spa in Room 120 of the Memorial Union. An outreach office of the Counseling Center, the Mind Spa is always staffed with friendly faces available to help. They also put on weekly events like meditation circles and TED Talk discussions, and offer light therapy, stress relief activities and biofeedback. Open 11 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. every weekday, it can’t hurt to explore the resources they have available, and the staff is awesome.

Attend an Active Minds meeting every Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Lown Room. I know this may seem like a shameless plug for my group, but it has the potential to help and connect you with other like-minded people who are passionate about mental health. Our meetings include weekly discussions on mental health related topics (last week was the intersection between mental health and memes, and next week is about how police respond to mental health crises) and we plan for big events each semester, like the upcoming Mental Health Monologues.

Utilize the rec center and exercise. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America lists countless mental health benefits of exercise, including “reducing stress and fatigue” and enhancing “alertness, concentration, … [and] overall cognitive function.” All students get free access to the New Balance Student Recreation Center, so put it to good use. Running on the treadmill and biking on the elliptical are great full body workouts that work up a sweat and can help clear your mind. If you’re interested in yoga or pilates, the rec center offers a plethora of classes at an additional charge.

Regularize your sleep cycle. This is probably the hardest piece of advice yet, but could have the biggest impact. It’s obviously easier said than done, because most college students have hectic schedules that aren’t easy to fit an eight-hour sleep schedule into. And yet, studies like this 2009 Harvard Health Publishing study confirm that sleep is essential to maintaining a stable mental state, saying, “Although scientists are still trying to tease apart all the mechanisms, they’ve discovered that sleep disruption — which affects levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, among other things — wreaks havoc in the brain, impairing thinking and emotional regulation.” Ultimately, it’s up to you to prioritize sleep, and this can mean setting a solid bedtime every night (as lame as that sounds) or taking naps when you have free time throughout the day.

Take regular showers. Personal hygiene is hard to maintain when you’re feeling anxious or depressed, and I understand that the simple act of showering or brushing your teeth can feel overwhelming at times. But tackling them can feel like an accomplishment once you’ve done them and the act of cleaning yourself can be cathartic and relaxing. I also find that it’s better to start your day with a shower, which makes you feel more prepared to take on the day.

Clean your surroundings. I often find myself procrastinating on my homework by doing dishes, laundry or tidying up my apartment, which is actually a helpful coping mechanism. Cleaning and clearing your spaces can help you to clear your mind, and it’s easier to get work done in a clean space.

Write about your feelings. As Carrie Fisher once said, “Take your broken heart, make it into art.” Some of the most famous authors and poets of our time wrote from dark places in their lives, and created masterpieces that transcend time and place. It may seem daunting, but I’m not saying you should publish your work, it could be helpful only to you and remain private to your heart forever. I keep a daily journal and maintain a mood tracker to channel my sadness into something productive, and have used snippets of my most depressive work to inspire my future writing. It can be liberating to write about what you’re feeling, and intense and motivating. But you’ll never know if you don’t try.

Practice self-care. There has been a lot of talk about self-care in recent years, and it begs the question of what is self-care? In my opinion, self-care is whatever you want it to be. All of the aforementioned tips can be self-care, and self-care is different for everyone. It’s not all bubble baths and mediating, sometimes it is sacrificing a night out with friends to get a good night’s rest, or putting off starting your work to make yourself a hearty meal. Whatever helps you cope with your feelings in a healthy manner counts. For me, that comes in the form of re-watching my favorite episodes of “The Office” or re-reading the “Harry Potter” series. Make tea, doodle, play with your pet, make lists, listen to your favorite Spotify playlist, do whatever makes you smile even when you don’t want to.

None of these pieces of advice are easy. Getting better won’t be easy. It will take work and effort on your part. But you can do it, I know you can. The world is a better place with you in it, and there are people out there who love and care about you. Pain is temporary, and progress isn’t linear. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked back on my tough times and been so thankful I stuck it out, if only so I got to see what came next. Every day brings new things, and whether they are good or bad, we are meant to experience them. You are not alone, and you are so worth it.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255, available 24 hours every day.