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Lesson for College Freshman: Top Ten for Mental Health

A common time for a first depressive episode doesn't have to be.

As described in an earlier blog, I experienced my first depressive break my freshman year at the University of Notre Dame. On September 30th, I’ll be speaking at the ND-NAMI’s Project Hope Suicide Prevention Walk. Considering that suicide is the second highest cause of death among college students, I jumped at the chance to share my thoughts on how suicide and depression might be avoided. My hope is these students will understand that mental health is important for all of us, not just those of us tagged with a predisposition for mental illness.

Julie and ND icon Father Ted Hesburgh

Mental illness, like many diseases is prime example of “what comes first?” Does genetics cause mental illness or does the environment breed it? I always answer “both” to this question. Perhaps more important than the actual environment is how we react to the environment.  We all have seen one person devastated by failure or disappointment, while another person uses failure as training wheels for success. As Charles Darwin said: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is that one that is the most adaptable to change."

When I arrived as a freshman at Notre Dame, I was frightened I might flunk out or gain 15 pounds. Depression or mental illness didn’t blip on my radar of concerns. Knowing myself now, over 30 years later, I think I could have lessened or even avoided my depressive downfall. So here’s my list of the top ten things I could have done to preserve my mental and physical health. This list won’t work for everyone, but perhaps it will inspire a college freshman to create a wellness list of his or her own.

  1. Sleep. Like many college freshman, I skimped on sleep. Late night studies, parties and finally worries chipped away at sleep until insomnia became a problem. Without sleep, any human being unravels.
  2. Nutrition. These days I take a multivitamin and a Vitamin D supplement, along with fish oil for Omega III fatty acid. I’m convinced that Seasonal Affect Disorder (caused by lack of sunlight and a Vitamin D deficiency) played a part in my depression. I try to get 15 minutes of unprotected sunlight every day.
  3. Exercise. Due to an injury, I abandoned running my freshman year which fed my depressive spiral. Now if I’m injured, I compensate with another form of exercise. A brisk walk every day makes a huge difference. For more information on exercise and brain function read Spark by John Ratey.
  4. Feed Your Brain with Courses that Excite You. A happy brain is a more productive brain. Obviously there are some courses that are difficult and necessary for a specific degree, but I would balance those courses with ones that inspire, that turn my brain on fire. My GPA bounced from 2.2 back to Dean’s List with a few elective courses. Strangely enough I aced Quantitative Methods when I struggled with Statistics the prior year. The difference? I took my electives in areas that ignited my interest (e.g., Poetry Writing, Mysticism). The courses that excited my brain unlocked my overall brain function.
  5. Avoid romantic relationships that exclude friendships. At ND, I always had a boyfriend. Part of this was survival. With a 5:1 ratio back in those days, a woman at ND felt a little like Bambi at the start of hunting season. A boyfriend provided security and protection until of course, the relationship ended. I tended to have a boyfriend and adopt his friends. When we broke up, I lost my boyfriend and my social network. If I had a do-over, I would spend more time developing my friendships with other women.
  6. Get a mentor. Someone 10 years or more older can act as a sounding board when problems are small and easily solved. In college, everyone is about the same age, causing the problems of that age group to escalate out of proportion. An older person could have helped me maintain a sense of humor about the problems I faced. One of my most valued friends today is an 85 year-old man who helps me keep my 52 year-old worries in check.
  7. Allow time for Introspection. Call this prayer, journaling, meditation, or chill time. I never allowed enough time for this then or now. I do best when I spend some time by myself, offline, where I breathe and acknowledge that I am part of a world that extends beyond my own body and needs. The ability to align oneself is seen as a valuable skill by major corporations. Check out this recent article in the Financial Times.
  8. Plan Proactively for a Health Crisis. Back when I was in college, student counseling centers weren’t as available as they are now. Store the number for the student counseling center in your phone. Drop by the counseling center when you are well, just so you know where it is. If you wait until you are depressed to find out where you can get help, oftentimes you won’t have the energy to find help.  Here is 24 hour number if you are in danger: 1-800-873-TALK.
  9. Know the Signs of Depression. No one told me the signs of depression, so I didn’t realize them when they were happening.  The Grant Halliburton Foundation website will help you recognize the signs.
  10. Remember that you are an important part of the world, but the world is not reliant on your performance. The value of who you are exceeds what you do. You might not believe this axiom for a few more decades. I certainly didn’t at your age. I wish I had. I would have worried about far less and laughed a lot more. This lesson humbles us, yet frees us to pursue our passions in the same instant.


Maybe with a little luck, some college freshman can leverage my experience into his or her own list for wellness. I hope so.  I had 2.5 phenomenal years at the University of Notre Dame. For the other 1.5 years, I was okay to miserable. If I had understood myself better then, my depressive episode could have been shorter and less severe. Hopefully this information will help others maximize their college experience.

For more information about Julie K Hersh check out her Struck by Living website

Register for the ND-NAMI’s Project Hope Suicide Prevention Walk here.