High School and College Students – Take Charge of Your Mental Health

Campus Calm had the opportunity to speak with Ross Szabo, our Mental Health Survival expert, about ways to reduce the stigma surrounding student mental health. Szabo is the Director of Youth Outreach for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign (NMHAC).Campus Calm: What is mental health stigma and how does it prevent young people from seeking the help that they need?Ross Szabo: Stigma surrounding mental health stems from the stigma surrounding mental disorders. People think that if they talk about emotions it’s a sign of weakness. They’re embarrassed and ashamed and don’t really know how to talk about how they feel on a lot of levels. Beyond that, a lot of people are afraid of being labeled loony, or crazy, or psycho, or wacko. If they have an emotional problem, they’re afraid that people are going to judge them, talk about them differently and make them more of an outcast.There’s also a stigma around therapy. Some people feel as if they don’t have the time to work out their problems or they don’t want to burden someone or make their lives worse. Sometimes they don’t even have the words to describe how they feel. Ultimately, it’s a fear of weakness or that it won’t be something treatable that they can deal with.Campus Calm: Do you believe that it’s our generation’s responsibility and maybe even our calling to stop mental health shame?Ross Szabo: I think it’s about time that we start looking at mental health issues in a different way. We’ve highlighted these issues for a long time without nailing them. We told people to stop drinking, then we told them to stop doing drugs. There were movements to tell people to stop having sex. At the core of all those issues are mental health issues. If you’re having unsafe sex, it’s probably not because you like yourself. If you’re drinking a lot or doing a lot of drugs, it’s probably not because you care about yourself.It’s time that we focus on why people are doing destructive things. Young people are in a time period where this is possible. Earlier, we didn’t know enough about the brain or about these issues to do it. So I do think it’s time to do it.Campus Calm: What are some things that we can do on an individual level to help stop the shame?Ross Szabo: Individually, if you’re going through a rough time, know that talking about these issues and seeking help is a sign of strength- it’s not a sign of weakness. It’s not something you should keep hidden or silent just because of fear. Individually, we need to start being more upfront and having discussions around these things. The more confidence we have, the more we’re going to be able to stand up to people who still view these issues as stigma. Say, “No, you’re wrong. This isn’t a stigma. The brain is a part of the body and I’m going to try to get my brain healthy.”We can also help our friends and family members by reassuring them and helping them have the confidence to seek help when they’re going through a rough time.Campus Calm: Who needs to worry about mental health?Ross Szabo: There’s a whole spectrum involved in mental health and we all should be concerned with the spectrum. On the low end of the spectrum, people may deal with stress, pressure, or lack of sleep. All those things are going to affect someone’s ability to do a lot of things.Further down the spectrum, people may be dealing with death or divorce, physical or sexual abuse or very clearly defined problems. In those situations, people are going to have to find what works best for them and deal with it. Further down, people my be dealing with mental disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and anxiety disorders. In those situations, again, they’re going to have to find what works best for them.Mental health is something that affects everyone. It’s something that everyone needs to be aware of and everyone should definitely work on. No one is except from mental health. We need to do a better job of helping people understand what mental health is.Campus Calm: Why is it so dangerous to think that we can and should control our problems all by ourselves instead of seeking help?Ross Szabo: Anytime someone tries to deal with something solely on their own, they may not be able to identify all the issues that are going on. They also may not be able to get through it alone. It’s also good to have other people to be objective and available to help make the issues a little clearer to understand or to help you do things that you may not be able to do. People who keep their issues bottled up inside may have them come out in other areas of their lives that they’re not even aware of like in their friendships or relationships.Campus Calm: There’s a lot of self-hate involved in mental health problems. So what are some healthy ways to develop a positive self-image that has nothing to do with our outward successes, our failures, or how we look on paper?Ross Szabo: The hard thing about self-hate is identifying where it comes from. From my own personal life, my self-hatred came first from outside events and then once it was internalized it grew bigger because I was putting that pressure on myself. For a lot of young people, self-hatred can start externally. It can be from a rough experience with a parent, divorce, or death. It could come from an event that a person couldn’t explain so they turned the anger toward themselves. Once self-hatred starts, it snowballs. Once you hate yourself, pretty much the next time something happens it gets easier and easier to hate yourself.Healing starts with identification and then talking about that event that started your self-hate. The next step is to find something you do like about yourself. One of the hardest things I faced with my self-hatred was because I hated myself so much it was hard for me to even admit that I liked one thing about myself. Once I found that one thing that I liked about myself, I was able to build from there to the point where I was able to find one hour of one day where I didn’t hate myself. This is a process that’s not going to go away overnight though. It’s going to take time and you’re going to have setbacks along the way, but don’t let those setbacks define your whole recovery.Campus Calm: What can you say about the dangers of self-medicating your stress with alcohol, cigarettes, unhealthy foods and even shopping -retail therapy?Ross Szabo: Self-medication is a quick fix to a really long-term problem and it’s not going to take the problem away. When my mind was racing endlessly because of bipolar disorder, my initial feeling was that I just needed to shut my mind down and that was drink until I passed out. While it would shut my mind down that night it certainly wouldn’t be a long-term solution. Plus, alcohol is a depressant so now it’s going to bring out depression and other things. So all these quick fixes are not to solve your problems and in many ways, they’re going to further complicate them. Finding a healthy release like exercise, Yoga, writing or whatever it may be is going to be much more beneficial in helping you find where your need for self-medication is coming from, and also remove the process of self-medicating.Campus Calm: What can you say about the lack of sleep high school and college students get today?Ross Szabo: Many young people today have a whole routine that doesn’t allow them to sleep. There’s this new competition in high schools and colleges where students are saying, “I have three papers this week and two exams and I didn’t sleep last night and I’m not going to sleep tonight.” The next person is like, “I have four papers and three tests and I didn’t sleep the last two nights. It’s a competition of who can be the most stressed out, but there’s not a competition of who can be healthy. No one’s saying, “I got my work done two weeks ago and I’m cool.”When I do my presentations, I ask students how many hours of sleep they get every night. The averages I’ve seen in well over 200,000 students are four to six hours of sleep per night. The military found that the easiest way to break down someone they’re trying to interrogate is not to keep them awake for 24 hours a day, but rather to only allow them to sleep two to five hours per day. In some ways, young people today are torturing themselves and they don’t realize it. The best way to get sleep is to not procrastinate and then act like you’re so freaked out at the last second. A lot of kids are so concerned with having the best paper, and getting into the best schools that they sacrifice so much of their lives to do it.Campus Calm: What are some things that high schools and college campuses can do to help reduce the stigma of mental health for their students & promote campus wellness?Ross Szabo: The most important thing colleges can do is to start to have public education campaigns on campus that address these issues. Most colleges will tell their students not to drink, not to do drugs, not to have sex, but they won’t touch the mental health concerns. They can use the same model they’re using with these issues to talk about mental health. Let students know during orientation what mental health issues are, where the counseling center is, what they can do about these things and why they should do these things. Colleges can also start organizations and groups that continue the education. There are peer-to-peer groups like Active Minds on campus. Depending on how far high schools and colleges want to take this, they can work with their counseling centers to do mailings home to parents and other things to really address these issues on a much wider scale.

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