College is a time of exploration, reinvention and independence. Sometimes college allows a phoenix-like ascension from a dismal high school experience or broadening of an already gifted person. We all want positive change. Too often, we count on positive change and fail to prepare for a realistic college experience. 

Most college students, as enlightened as they think they are about mental health, still hesitate to get help. A recent study by the American College Health Association showed that 94.6% of college students felt they had a very traumatic or very difficult issue in the past 12 months. 31.1% reported being so depressed that it was difficult to function. 20.9% were diagnosed and treated by a professional during that period.

Strangely enough 73.5% of these college students reported having a dental exam and teeth cleaning in the past year. An appointment with a counselor as a preventative method for mental illness was not even listed. With all the potentially harmful factors for the brain that are inevitable in college life -  sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, no exercise, experimentation with drugs and alcohol, no solidified support group, likely first encounter with failure - our preventative measures seem askew. Why do we focus on dental care more than mental care?

Balloons released at Utah Valley State in memory of students lost to suicide

In my visits to colleges, I encourage students to visit the college counseling center before a problem occurs. Many colleges incorporate a required life skills course into their curriculum. How to access help should be a part of that course. Like brushing one’s teeth, students need to understand that lack of sleep, poor nutrition, lack of exercise and the abuse of drugs and alcohol can lead to brain decay. People with a genetic predisposition for mental illness may be more vulnerable, but with enough abuse any brain is at risk. Throw in a little failure and emotional trauma with poor mental hygiene, and no wonder such a high percentage of college students are severely depressed.

I spoke with Dr. Nancy Shosid, a psychiatrist who focuses on adolescent and young adult issues, to see if she’d experienced the college breakdown syndrome in her practice. She had. Shosid strongly advises her patients to establish local psychological and psychiatric support systems before they go to college. Most college websites offer information on counseling services and support groups such as Active Minds or NAMI as well as recovery groups provide instant communities of support. Orientation is a great time to set up an initial appointment, even if the student seems fine. That way if a problem occurs, the student has a local, existing professional who can provide help.

Most families follow a course of hopeful inaction. Families hope the college environment will cause the student to blossom, never developing a local backup plan for potential problems. With all the stress and lack of family support systems in college, this approach often proves to be wishful thinking. “It’s a shame,” Shosid said. “They call in a crisis, and often kids drop out of school.” Out of school and back at home, often not working and with most friends out of town who seem to enjoy their college experience, problems get worse. The sense of isolation and failure magnifies. Mental health becomes a long-fought struggle instead of routine maintenance.

4 Colleges participated in Walk for Hope 2012 in Harrisonburg, VA

Ben Franklin’s adage of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure plays large in the area of mental health. Be realistic. Understand that problems will happen in college, but most problems can be minimized with some common sense tactics like I mentioned in my last blog: Lesson for College Freshman Top Ten for Mental Health. If each college student came up with his or her own list for health and thought about it once a day— even once a week— the results could be extraordinary. Why not brush your teeth AND take care of your brain?

What expression describes your experience: college rocks or college is rocky? Strange that a two letter verb can transform the meaning of a sentence. Those of us in recovery know how small things can accumulate in either positive or negative ways. Balance requires self-awareness and constant adjustment. Life rocks when we find our own lingo, a good fit that resonates. Joy starts in the brain and moves through the body with profound healing impact.  A brain smile, from the inside out. Try it. I hear it’s a great way to show off your dental work.

For more information on Struck by Living or Julie K. Hersh, check out her website: She will be speaking September 30 at the University of Notre Dame for the NAMI-ND Project Hope Suicide Prevention Walk: Get Grounded.

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