While some conversations in higher education tend to gain popularity and then fade with time, I believe that the conversation regarding mental health awareness ought to be on-going and ever-present. Without a doubt, there is an increasing awareness of mental illness – though this does not necessarily indicate an increased understanding. Issues of mental health personally affected my own journey as a college graduate, and unfortunately, the lives of many of people I care for.
As a college senior, I dealt with acute depression and struggled some mornings to even get out of bed. I knew the minute my feet hit the floor, I would have to face the day, however daunting it seemed. It was a struggle to participate in classroom learning, and engage in relationships with my classmates and peers. I often found myself working late into the night on projects I had put off until the last minute. I wasn’t getting enough sleep, I wasn’t eating healthy, my relationships were suffering, and my schoolwork was sub par.
I sought help from my college’s counseling center, and while I am sure the staff there had every good intention of serving me well, I felt unseen and unimportant in their sights. As a seventeen year old – still teenager – it took a great deal of courage to even schedule the appointment. I had no real desire to sort through and relive painful memories in order to improve my mental well-being. Instead, I opted to avoid dealing with my problems, and consequently dealt with my depression for a prolonged period of time.
It is obvious – in retrospect – that my depression severely limited my ability to form healthy relationships, as well as influence the depth of learning I was able to experience. That is not to say that those with depression (or any particular mental health issue) are less socially intelligent or academically intelligent. Rather, mental wellness plays a key role in facilitating both social interactions and academic engagement.
Counseling centers are not the only office on campus that interacts with students struggling with mental health issues, and therefore student affairs practitioners across campus ought to be prepared to encounter students who may be in need of a listening ear or a friendly face.
All this to say, I have seen the way depression changes a person and makes them feel like less than who they were created to be. I’ve seen the way anxiety cripples a person and how it forces them into this shell of who they really are. I’ve seen eating disorders tear families apart and destroy friendships and wreck havoc on the body. I’ve walked with people as they’ve struggled with self-harm, I’ve seen bipolar disorder destroy relationships, and I’ve seen people turn to substance abuse because they can’t face the reality of their struggles.
But I have also seen redemption. I’ve seen restoration. I’ve seen people walk through valleys of darkness and despair into fields of triumph and jubilee. I’ve witnessed battles being fought, wars being won, and I have seen the scars that have been left behind as a reminder of things past. I’ve watched healing occur and relationships be repaired and this is why I’m passionate about mental health.
Students who struggle with mental health are not any less than any other student. They are not solely intent on trying to get by and earn a degree. These students have the potential to change the world – the same as anyone other student does. In order to ensure that these students have their best shot at chasing after whatever life has in store for them, student affairs professionals need to care about mental health in a way that enables and equips them to confront difficult situations, and shine light and hope into dark places.