Leading Stories

by Nicole Allen, Staff Writer

*Shannon’s walls are a prison she has unwillingly constructed. She finds herself, once more, falling into recidivist behaviors—wanting nothing more than to leave the confines of her cell but feeling an ironic sense of comfort in her lockdown.

She is a graduate student cursed with an illness that cannot be seen, rendering her perpetually misunderstood and judged for the symptoms of her disease. She remains stuck in her detention and her path to the outside world is blocked by the prison guard of her mind.

The cruelest obstacle of her disease, she realizes, is convincing others the prison even exists.

For numerous college students around the globe, the isolation Shannon experiences is a chilling reality of living with a mental disorder. The inability to receive empathy from friends and family makes the increasingly stressful life of a college student nearly unbearable.

“’My leg hurts’ is easier to convey than ‘I have no desire to do anything and my body feels overwhelmed by sadness,’” Shannon said. “I’ve had many friends who say they support mental health that end up taking a symptom of mine personally and abandoning the friendship.”

Societally, we are becoming more cognizant of the danger mental health poses to college students, but concerns have evolved as the percentage of students suffering increases.

What is Happening?

Mental health discourse has become more prominent in recent years. The increase in understanding; however, has not reduced the pressure to succeed academically and socially.

A survey by the World Health Organization found 35% of college students around the globe are living with a mental illness. The most common disorders among students are depression and anxiety, which can be debilitatingly significant.

Dr. Michele Manassah, Executive Director for Counseling and Health Services at UWF, has worked in collegiate mental health for ten years. In the last decade, she has observed a rise in students seeking mental health services due to obstacles which, she believes, prior generations did not have to overcome. Increased student debt, competitiveness for jobs, negative political atmosphere, harassment, assault and the mental drain social media causes on students’ psyche are a few factors which bring students into her office.

“As rates of suicide, depression and anxiety have risen over the past ten years, so, too, has the use of technology and, specifically, social media use,” Manassah said. “The impact of social media use on mental health is a relatively new area of research, with more questions than answers at this point. However, both the use of technology and social media are certainly
embedded in the lives of Generation Z like no previous generation.”

Manassah says the current generation is much more open to speaking about their mental health than previous generations. However, a stigma still exists, which may leave many students wondering if their struggles are worth a trip to the counseling center.

Don’t Ignore the Signs

All too often, college students simply grin and bear any mental hardships—chalking them up to typical college byproducts. In some cases, this may be true; however, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, there are some tale-tale signs which could signify abnormal mental
 Excessive Worrying, Fear or Loneliness
 Extreme Moodiness
 Avoiding Friends or Social Outings
 Lethargy or Change in Sleeping Habits
 Changes in Sex Drive or Intimacy
 Substance Abuse (Alcohol or Drugs)
 Unexplained Physical Ailments (Headaches, Stomach Pains, etc.)
 Suicidal Thoughts
 Difficulty Accomplishing Day-to Day Tasks
 An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance

In addition to these symptoms, students have reported failing grades and isolation to be indicators they needed to seek help.

“I was studying for the medical school admissions test and that’s when everything went down,” Catherine* a student at UWF, said. “I have never felt so much pressure and anxiety in my entire life. I had anxiety attacks every week. Plus, it was affecting my relationships as well. I was pushing a lot of people away.”

Catherine experienced several of the symptoms listed above but found solace after seeking help from the UWF Counseling and Psychological Services, also known as CAPS. This is where she and many other students have regained control of their mental health.

Helping Yourself
College campuses around the globe are taking steps to create easily accessible mental health services for their student body and UWF has already established beneficial mental health programs and an exceptionally understanding environment on campus.

“UWF offers individual counseling, couples counseling, biofeedback, group counseling, crisis intervention, consultation, outreach events like Stress Free Café and Paws and Play, workshops, and online screening services,” Manassah said. “All of these services are free to UWF students and all are available on the Pensacola campus. On the Fort Walton campus, CAPS also offers counseling and will be introducing the Let’s Talk program in the spring.”

Let’s Talk is a service which allows students to confidentially speak with a therapist without prior appointment. This is an excellent opportunity for those who may be hesitant to speak to a counselor or are not ready to commit to scheduled sessions.

In addition to speaking with an experienced counselor or psychologist, there are several ways in which a college student can prioritize and improve their mental health. Manassah encourages students to get sufficient amounts of sleep, seek tutoring when necessary, speak to advisors and professors about your concerns and get involved with student groups that fit your interests.

Students also reported that finding a support system—family, friends, church members, etc.—can make a significant difference when coping with mental health issues.

Stomping the Stigma
Shannon’s mental illness forced her into isolation, and, in her darkest hour, her symptoms attributed to the abandonment of some of her closest friends. This phenomenon is seen too often in the relationships of those inflicted.
The continued stigma surrounding mental illness is solely based on a lack of understanding.

Lifting it can only be accomplished through societal empathy.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness lays out nine ways we can eliminate stigma, the primary tools being honesty, communication, empowerment and education.Together, we can ensure students like Shannon and Catherine no longer have to feel alone in their battle against mental illness.

“I think to continue lifting the stigma,” Shannon said. “we should be open, honest, and humanizing—bring real faces, stories, and relationships to people who might not understand mental health challenges. Once people understand others, beyond stigma and stereotypes, I think a lot of change will happen in how we as society treat those with mental illness.”

If you are suffering, it is important to remember you are not alone. It is important to prioritize your mental health and not hesitate seeking the help you deserve.

If you would like to further explore options available to you on campus, you may contact CAPS by emailing counselingservices@uwf.edu, calling 850.474.2420, or stopping by building 960.

*Names have been changed to ensure anonymity.