With the recent rise in mental health issues in students across college campuses in the U.S., one student here at TU has created a group to bring awareness to the problem.
According to the American Psychological Association, in the 2012-2013 school year, one-third of U.S. college students had difficulty functioning due to depression. In addition, one-half of college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety. Although anxiety and depression rank at the top of the list, other such reports by students include problems associated with relationship issues, substance and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and self-injury.
First, let’s clarify what’s meant by anxiety and depression. Although many people use these terms in a colloquial or even joking manner, anxiety and depression are serious mental health diagnoses with very specific symptoms. Anxiety is characterized by “a feeling of uneasiness or apprehension” (DSM-5, 2013).
It’s also anticipatory, meaning the feeling of uneasiness or apprehension comes before something unpleasant happens, like that knot you get in your stomach the night before a final exam. In low doses, anxiety is beneficial, as it allows us to avoid potential threats to our well-being.
However, it becomes problematic when it disrupts daily functioning and causes distress. Then it becomes a disorder.
Symptoms of depression include intense sadness, feelings of worthlessness, and withdrawal from others. It is a mood disorder and falls on a spectrum. Depressed individuals express low mood and low energy. It is the polar opposite of mania (high mood and high energy) and comprises one-half of the behavior observed in people with bipolar disorder (shifting from low/high mood/energy).
I want to be very specific when talking about anxiety and depression because far too often they’re used in inappropriate and offensive ways. Saying you’re “depressed” because you received a bad grade on a test not only butchers the clinical meaningfulness of the term, but it minimizes the whole agonizing range of emotions and experiences of an actually depressed person to a fleeting moment of disappointment. It’s a grossly insensitive categorization, something students like Tara Grigson fully understand.
“I hate it when people use clinically meaningful terms so loosely. It’s infuriating.” I tell her I agree, adding that I hate it when people overuse the word “awesome”. (Let’s be honest; did my story about me visiting my grandma actually fill you with awe? I don’t think so.)
Last year Tara created HeadStrong, a group here on campus that helps raise awareness about mental health issues. Over the next half hour we discuss HeadStrong in rich detail, covering its origin, its meaning, its significance, and its impact on those involved with it. In the process, I begin to realize just how awesome Tara is.
HeadStrong, more formally known as HeadStrong: Student Advocates for Mental Health, is “a place for students to form community and address stigma surrounding mental health through advocacy, education and awareness.”
In other words, it’s a place to talk openly and shamelessly about mental health issues.
“I was surprised TU didn’t have already something like HeadStrong. I went to OU and they had mental health awareness groups on campus. Same with other colleges I visited. But not TU.”
Tara said she’s been working on HeadStrong for two years. “I got really interested in mental health awareness in high school. It’s just grown since then.”
Although it’s still in its baby stages (having been chartered last fall), HeadStrong, Tara informs me, is strong and kicking. Members meet every Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Blue House behind Chapman Hall to discuss certain mental health issues.
“We’re not a support group,” Tara clarifies. “We’re an advocacy group. We discuss mental health issues as a group. We help inform each other about different aspects of mental health, but we don’t therapize each other. HeadStrong is a place for discussion, not therapy.”
Tara explains, “the biggest difference between HeadStrong and the counseling services here at TU is that the counseling services are clinical in nature; qualified professionals treat the students. With HeadStrong, we’re not professionals. We don’t have degrees. We simply talk about important mental health issues in order to raise awareness.”
One of these important issues HeadStrong members discussed includes the stigma surrounding people with mental health. Last year, Tara organized a panel that discussed just that. It was pointedly titled, “Don’t Tell Me I’m Sick”.
Five panelists, each of whom were LGBTQA+ or had a personal connection to the LGBTQA+ community, shared their personal stories of dealing with depression and anxiety surrounding their struggle for identity and for acceptance in society. I learned what gender dysphoria is, how gender is fluid, and how most people simply don’t understand, or really care to understand, the struggles these individuals faced and continue to face daily.
“I think my mental health issues may be connected to my sexuality,” Tara comments. “I came out as gay one year ago, but before that I did go through some pretty painful experiences.”
Although I don’t probe any further, I understand immediately what she means. Having been through an eating disorder myself, I know how intense the anxiety is living through each day with such a burdensome secret. I would have to plan out every single meal, counting the calories in everything I consumed so I wouldn’t get more anxious by not knowing my intake. I couldn’t tell anybody because it was so raw and embarrassing. It was hell.
Aside from such anxiety-producing things that affect only a portion of college students, like being in the closet or having an eating disorder, we all face so many stressors in day-today college life. Tests, extracurriculars, socializing, maintaining good grades, etc. all are inherently anxiety-producing and affect all of us students. I would go so far as to say that if you haven’t had at least one anxious episode in college then you aren’t doing college right.
With that said, I think that’s why groups like HeadStrong are so vital to student health. They allow us to realize that having a mental health issue is not embarrassing. Rather, it’s empowering. It gives students the opportunity to teach other students about mental health so that they can, in turn, spread this knowledge, increase understanding and acceptance, and decrease stigma.
As Tara puts it, “The most rewarding part of being involved in HeadStrong is seeing that more and more people are supporting mental health advocacy. People are recognizing its legitimacy.”
It comes in good time, too. With the rise in mental health issues in colleges, it’s becoming more and more important to spread awareness about mental health. With HeadStrong, students at TU have the opportunity to do just that. So be awesome like Tara, and spread the knowledge.