Change is tough but necessary.
If I could take one lesson from the craziness of being a teen halfway between a world that held my hand and sheltered me, and a world that expected me to wake up at 5:30 every morning, drink coffee and show up, this would be it.
As I graduate high school this spring and look to a future of more caffeine, independence and quirky new classmates, I want to simultaneously drive through a long tunnel to the sound of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” donning my cap and gown — and dunk my head into a vat of icy water and scream from the stress of it all. I think I am not alone in this, which is why I went in search of strategies for managing transition stress. This is what I found.
Building stress resilience can go a long way toward preventing the mental illnesses that many college students face. The most common ones are depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, self injury, bipolar disorder, psychotic disorders, ADHD and sleep disorders.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death on college campuses. Depression and anxiety are the most common mental health challenges among college students, and the American College Health Association reports that students see these issues as their biggest barriers to academic success. Social isolation in college is a sign of mental illness and can cause a condition to worsen.
Suicide-prevention programs such as the JED Foundation and Active Minds have come about to address this issue on campus.
Early detection makes a difference for teens who struggle with mental illness. About half of students who have a mental illness drop out of high school, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. These difficulties could limit students’ ability to focus and connect with others.
I spoke with Wanda Collins, Ph.D., the assistant vice president of counseling and psychological services at Emory University, about the mental health challenges faced by first-year students in college. She suggested many students become so absorbed in the magic of a new environment that they decide to quit medication and/or therapy in order to leave their high school struggles behind.
This thinking is dangerous. “Anytime someone is struggling,” said Collins, “that struggle can be amplified in times of change.”
Tools We Can Use
Maria Bermudez, 20, who attends Georgia College and State University, said daily reminders of worth can be really uplifting. “A grade does not define you,” she said. “I put all these expectations on myself, and for me it’s not about what I’m taking out of a class — it’s the grade. I push myself and push myself … ” Putting positive notes in places you will see them every day or compiling vision boards with positive affirmations are great ideas to get started.
Sleep, exercise and fun: Getting enough sleep and exercise can have a profound impact on a person’s mental health. In answer to the question of what she would include in a self-care toolbox, Collins replied, “Fun passes … In college, it’s easy to feel like you should always be studying or you should always be doing something, and you really do need time away from studies to play and have fun.”
Some students also turn to religious groups and school functions for a sense of belonging and support. Jordan Crews, who is 20 and in her sophomore year at Georgia Military College, said, “I find it comforting going to one of our church functions that we have every Thursday. …The pastor there brings the message that always speaks to me and makes me feel like everything is going to be OK. It relaxes me and helps me look at the bigger picture of things.”
She also found joining the softball team at her school to be helpful in making friends.
Collins, from Emory, also stresses the importance of finding friends or people in your life who bring out the best version of you and are supportive of what you’re trying to get in life, what you’re trying to be about, who build you up.”
Asking For Help
We like to only show the brightest and happiest version of ourselves to others, but this thinking can be problematic when we are afraid of disillusioning others by opening up and talking about how we really feel.
Maria Bermudez struggled with asking for help when she first came to college.
“In those moments, it does help to talk about it even if you’re reluctant and don’t feel comfortable talking about your emotions,” she said. “Even if it is talking to your family back home, because I know I did not want to tell my mother or my sister about how I was feeling. I didn’t want to worry them because they were so far away. If I had been honest and open in telling them about how I was feeling, that would have helped a lot just to be reassured that it was all going to be OK.”
Bermudez continued, “[Mental health] is not an issue to keep hushed. This is my third and a half year, and I have friends who have mental health issues. For so long, I’ve just been hearing their stories and about how they don’t like talking about it because they don’t want to be looked at differently. [I wish I had known] that there are people that struggle with it and it is OK. It is not something to be shunned. It is not something to shy away from.”
I asked Ateyra Lewis, a sophomore at Booker T. Washington High School, what advice she would give to a student going into high school.
“Don’t come in playing because when I first came, I wasn’t taking ninth grade seriously. Take every grade seriously. Stay focused. Don’t be worried about friends because everyone comes and goes,” she said.
Lewis said her own “ninth grade year was OK. I feel like if I had stayed focused, then it would have been better. I came in good but then I started hanging with the wrong crowd and then I started slipping … Now I’m in 10th grade year. Everything’s good.”
Knowing the resources available is helpful when you are feeling overwhelmed as a student. At college, Collins suggests we find someone, such as a resident assistant in the dorm, who can guide us in the right direction. It might even be helpful to start researching during senior year of high school the resources available at your college, particularly if you already face mental health challenges.
Most colleges offer free counseling to admitted students, as well as peer-to-peer support groups. Although students come to the Emory University counseling center for a variety of reasons, Collins said you should definitely seek help if you are persistently feeling overwhelmed and it is starting to impair your functioning.
Khailah Bell, a student leader of Spelman College’s Psychology Club, recommends this for high school students looking into a college: “When you’re choosing a college, you have to visit the college and see if it will be a supportive environment for you personally, if it will cater to your individual needs and help promote your best self.”
Much of the advice given by other students resonated with me. Despite the pressures of senior year, I have started to acknowledge that my physical and mental well-being should come first, even if sometimes they don’t. But finally just seeing that clearly is the best tool I hope to add to my own personal self-care toolbox.
Maya, 16, is a senior at Warith Deen Mohammed High School. She plans to attend Agnes Scott College in the fall.
Art by Zakirah White, W. D. Mohammed High School
This story was published at VOXAtl.com, Atlanta’s home for uncensored teen publishing and self-expression. For more about the nonprofit VOX, visit www.voxatl.org.