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Editorial: The most important finals assignment this semester should be your mental health

For college students, it’s the most terrible time of the year. Deadlines of impending essays, projects and exams loom closer as students attempt to desperately hold themselves together during the final weeks before winter break. On top of the mass of school-related stress, many students also experience flares of increased mental illness side effects, making this time of year dark despite the sparkling holiday lights. Taking time to understand the importance of mental health can benefit not only yourself but others around you at the end of the semester, and beyond.

Research on the causes, impacts and side effects of mental health have been conducted on individuals from all age groups, personal backgrounds and places. The statistics and information are there, and unfortunately, the numbers tied to college students are increasing.

The American Psychological Association found that one in three college students are impacted by various mental illnesses. Another study by the World Health Organization led by Columbia University Psychology Professor, Randy Auerbach surveyed nearly 14,000 first-year college students from eight countries, including the United States, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, North Ireland, South Africa and Spain, found that 35 percent of those surveyed reported struggling with mental illness. Of those students, 21.2 percent reported lifelong symptoms of depressive disorders, and 18.6 percent reported symptoms of general anxiety disorder.

The American College Health Association found that 52.7 percent of students they surveyed noted feelings of helplessness and 39.1 percent reported feeling so depressed it affected their ability to function in the 12 months leading up to when they were surveyed.

Mental illness takes many forms and can differ for each individual. While depression and anxiety seem to have recently dominated many narratives surrounding mental health, eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, and alcohol or substance use disorders can also affect many college students. According to a study conducted by Paola Pedrelli, the director of Dual Diagnosis Studies at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, approximately one in five college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder and one in 20 for substance abuse. The study also reported that 44 percent of college students engage in binge drinking, defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more for men in a two hour period. According to the study, “binge drinking is considered the number one public health hazard and the primary source of preventable morbidity and mortality for college students in the U.S.”

All of these statistics can seem overwhelming, but they depict an environment where many individuals in a similar age range are collectively being affected by these illnesses. It’s no mystery as to why this happens; college provides a new environment for many students that require higher levels of independence, an increase in both academic and work-related responsibilities as well as an escalation of obligations in an extremely limited amount of time. If you talk to any student at the end of a semester, or at any other time, and ask them to list their responsibilities, they often include a list of multiple homework assignments, work hours, social responsibilities, decisions about their future and more that would overwhelm anyone who wishes to get the recommended eight hours of sleep at night.

Unfortunately, many recommendations for students hoping to improve their mental health require students to push aside certain responsibilities to make time for others. Exercise is frequently cited as beneficial, and while this is an entirely viable idea and can help individuals, it also requires extra free time to attend the gym or go for a run. Eating healthy is a notable go-to for mental health advice, but healthier food choices are often pricier, and many students either can’t afford to make these choices or would need to increase work hours to do so. Getting enough sleep can also be hard when multiple page essays, class presentations and studying for exams create a demanding schedule that requires attention late into the night and early in the morning.

Many colleges and universities provide services for students who wish to seek help, and the University of Maine specifically has many resources available. The Counseling Center located in the Cutler Health Center provides counseling services with highly trained professionals and a level of confidentiality that helps students come forward to talk about their problems, self-help and relaxation advice and environments, and outreach for students to engage in their surroundings and connect with their community.

The UMaine Mind Spa, located in the Memorial Union, serves as the Education and Outreach Office of the Counseling Center, and provides a free space for students to relax and also gain valuable information on dealing with mental health, as well providing engaging activities and events throughout the semester to raise awareness. The Student Wellness Resource Center, also in the Union, provides resources for physical, mental and even financial wellness of students and serves as another resource for various trainings and information on how to better a student’s all around health and wellness.

These resources are beneficial and provide useful services for students, but counseling centers nationwide are reporting higher levels of demands each year. A 2014 National Survey of College Counseling Centers reported that 52 percent of their clients had severe psychological problems, an increase from 44 percent in 2013. This included an increase in reports of anxiety disorders, crises requiring immediate response and action, psychiatric medication issues and clinical depression.

One proposed solution centers around the idea of increasing online services. College students, in particular, report that they do not seek help because of limited time or concern for what others think, according to the study by the Massachusetts General Hospital. However, online services could provide both anonymity and convenience of any-time services. Already, 74 percent of students stated receiving health information online, and 40 percent actively sought out information through searching the web. The study found that a web-based method of screening students for depression and other suicide risk factors by reaching out through email or social networking websites resulted in an increased rate of students seeking help. Because of this, colleges, universities, and other institutions should take the time to consider investing in online resources to provide to students to combat the fearful stigma that surrounds reaching out for help.

The road towards asking for help can seem like a scary one. However, if you struggle with mental health issues, know that there will always be people ready and willing to help get you on your feet to tackle any problem that comes your way. If you see others around you struggling, show them that seeking out professional resources is nothing to be ashamed of by extending your kindness and compassion to them.
Finals are a stressful season. Taking time for your mental health may seem like just another responsibility to add to your list, but it should exist as an underlying theme of self-care, self-love, and understanding that your well-being comes before anything else.

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