A Mental Health Love Letter to College Students

Dear Students,

How soon after arriving at college did you hear about campus counseling, mental health services, or peer support groups?

Before your first class? Before you unpacked your clothes? At orientation? In a welcome packet as soon as you were accepted? During a tour before you’d even made up your mind about where you’d spend the first few years of your independent adult life?

Awareness of mental health, and of just how critical and undertreated it is, seems to have risen sharply over the past couple decades, particularly on college campuses across America.

It’s good we’re having these conversations. We could talk ad nauseam about the prevalence of depression, about rates of suicide, about anxiety, stress, worry, anger, and all the other psychological issues afflicting so many of us. (And at the Institute of Family and Community Impact, a.k.a. IFCI, that’s exactly what we do.)

But today, we want to talk about the most important thing of all:

You.

Who are you? Who are you going to be? What are you going to do?

For many college students, this is the first time in your life when you have complete autonomy over your decisions and choices, including in which direction your life will go. That can be an incredibly overwhelming situation to be in, even if you know precisely what you love to do and what you are most passionate about.

And, unfortunately, feeling overwhelmed, uncertain, and ungrounded are feelings that have been linked to hopelessness and loneliness, some of the hallmarks of depression.

Your Computer Overheats and So Can You

At our headquarters, where we’re neighbors to a college campus, the air is cool and crisp, and the trees are busting out some fall fashion. Our street is crisscrossed daily by streams of backpacked students like yourself. By now, you’ve already been exposed to a deluge of new ideas, responsibilities, choices, and people – whether you’re a freshman or a senior. And that’s good! That’s what college is supposed to do.

But it also can make you feel lost and confused. And that can feel very isolating.

The brain has a few major “growth spurts” that occur around infanthood, adolescence, and young adulthood. This makes you primed and ready to gather and consume all kinds of new information, knowledge, and experiences, but it also means your brain is working overtime like a wheezing computer running too many apps simultaneously.

Imagine: you’ve got Facebook open, you’re trying to download a program to help with time management, you’re listening to Post Malone’s “Goodbyes” again, you’re sort-of watching a video for health class, you just got an email notification from your mom (subject line: “I’M MAILING YOUR MISSING SOCK XOXO”), you’re bookmarking a Tumblr account with great cat memes, you’re writing a paper on whatever the heck Jacques Derrida meant by “deconstruction,” you’re trying to record a TikTok to show your friends how much work you have to do, you’re putting another phone charger into your online shopping cart since you keep losing yours, and you’re trying to load Overwatch but the game has been lagging a lot lately for some reason. 

Meanwhile, a little pop-up window warning that you need a massive, crucial, whole-system software update keeps dinging loudly and appearing at the corner of your eye. Pretty distracting.

This may be fun and exciting and full of activities that you love, but even hardworking computers with no biological needs have to be rested, recharged, and sometimes rebooted.

You know the basics of what you need to do to stay healthy, both mentally and physically: sleep, get good nutrition, and exercise. And even though you probably won’t always make the best choices about those necessities, you also can practice mental hygiene beyond the basics.

Feeling Lost? Find Out If Depression Is Responsible

As noted above, feeling overwhelmed by changes and choices can be a warning sign for depression. In fact, a recent study found a correlation between the instability of self-identity and self-direction felt by some college students and increased depressive symptoms.

The main focus of this particular research was on “derailment,” a feeling of disconnect between your future plans and your experiences up until now. With college offering new paradigms at every turn, a person feeling derailed can be torn in many different directions, with their identity fluctuating quickly and often.

This can make you feel that you aren’t the same person you once were. And since a sense of self is vital to our lives, you may feel a loss of purpose or be even more confused than you were reading about Derrida and deconstruction.


What if we’ve got it backwards? What if the hopelessness and the anxiety themselves are what’s sucking the joy out of this exciting time of exploration and discovery?


It’s important to remember that these changes are necessary. You’re building the foundation of a new, self-determined, adult identity and purpose in life. That takes time, and the process itself can be enriching and rewarding. But if the fast and furious changes are taking a toll on your wellbeing and motivation, it may be because you’re having symptoms of depression.

The researchers studying depression and derailment in college students discovered that derailment tends to come after the onset of depression, not the other way around. That is, if the dynamism of your burgeoning identity, purpose, and future is causing you to feel lost, alone, and unsure of who you really are, it may be because you’ve been experiencing depression.

This is why we take monitoring and addressing mental health symptoms so seriously. Sure, being thrust into new experiences and feeling pressured to succeed and determine your entire life path could make anyone feel stressed out, anxious, and maybe even hopeless. But what if we’ve got it backwards? What if the hopelessness and the anxiety themselves are what’s sucking the joy out of this exciting time of exploration and discovery?

So before you feel derailed, before you start questioning yourself, before you start thinking you’re all alone and everyone else has figured it all out, take time to talk to people: professionals, mentors, and peers. Allow yourself to be OK with some uncertainty in your life, and find the joy of seeking out your purpose. All over the world, people like us here at IFCI want to see you thriving and succeeding.

You can do this! We believe in you!

Love,

The Institute of Family and Community Impact


RESOURCES

Find out about mental health and other services and programs we provide in Ohio by visiting ohioguidestone.org.

HOTLINES

Research articles and scientific issues we should be following? Email IFCI@OhioGuidestone.org.

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