Behind the perfect student facade: mental health on campus

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By Kimi Rose

“I didn’t understand what was happening to me, why I never felt happy, and why I was so exhausted all the time.”

Gianna Rizzo has struggled with depression since she was 12 years old. She was withdrawing from friends. She was easily irritated, always exhausted and often anxious. Without changing her eating or exercise habits, Rizzo was also losing weight. Looking back, Rizzo realizes the symptoms were always there.

It wasn’t until she was 15 that Rizzo finally received help and was diagnosed with depression. She attended therapy for about six months before deciding she wanted to develop the skills to cope on her own. Now she continues to do that as a junior at SMU. Rizzo was lucky enough to recognize the issue and seek help, but this isn’t always the case for others, especially in the stressful years of college.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, at least one in five college students will experience a mental health condition.

Mental illness is not rare and seems more prevalent among students than ever.

Half of all severe adult psychiatric illnesses such as major depressive disorder, anxiety disorders and substance abuse start by age 14. Three-fourths are present by age 25, according to Active Minds. Active Minds is a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the conversation about mental health on college campuses. Active Minds has collegiate chapters throughout the nation; recently, Rizzo brought one to SMU to help others just like her.

Mental Health and Young Adults

High school, college, and early adulthood are all transformative periods. When facing the usual stressors of daily life and symptoms of a mental illness, students often find it difficult to gain control over the situation. Active Minds reports 18 to 24-year-olds are less likely to seek help than other age groups. In some of the hardest times, students need to know that it is acceptable to talk and to ask someone for guidance. Active Minds reports 1,100 college students commit suicide each year. Experts argue it is time to start a conversation to help reduce that number.

Mental Health Today

According to, mental health includes emotional, psychological and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel and act – playing a role in how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices.

“We all have mental health,” licensed psychologist Sally Falwell said. “We’re all handling the world around us and the stress that we experience.”

Everyone faces different struggles related to mental well-being, and experts agree that mental health awareness is something each community, especially any college campus, needs to expand.

“Everyone struggles with mental health in one way or another,” said Stephanie Kaplan Lewis, cofounder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Her Campus Media, to Future of Personal Health. “Once you open up, others will open up too.”

In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase from 50 percent in 2011to 62 percent in 2016 in undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year with numbers continuing to rise.

“This generation of students, the millennial generation, have grown up in a very fast-paced society with high expectations,” Micky Sharma, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, said to Marketplace. “That, I think, is coupled with our students’ coping skills and ability to be resilient is not as high as we’d like it to be.”

With the pressure to be involved, have a high GPA, have internships, maintain a balanced social life and social media presence, and have a job right after college, students are almost guaranteed to feel overwhelmed in they are told are the “best four years” of their lives.

Resources at SMU

SMU offers resources for students, such as counseling services at the Dr. Bob Smith Health Center. The health center offers personal counseling, workshops and group therapy, psychiatric services, crisis intervention and psychological services for anyone struggling with sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender issues.

“I’ve tried to make mental health appointments, and they would say there’s no space for months, so I haven’t had the chance to use it as a resource,” senior Natalie Focht said.

Some students say SMU needs to take more of a commitment to mental health awareness, but other places on campus are also available for peer-to-peer help.

Active Minds at SMU

After seeing the impact of three student suicides at SMU in less than two years, Rizzo recognized suicide as a tragic symptom of a more significant problem, leading her to found SMU’s Active Minds chapter in her sophomore year with the hope of eliminating the overall lack of understanding and lack of acceptance of mental illness.

SMU Active Minds, led by Rizzo, works to grow its community and spread awareness of its cause. In September, the organization partnered with Psi Chi (the International Honor Society in Psychology) and Student Senate to “pop the stigma surround mental illnesses.” By throwing darts at paint balloons with negative stigmas written on them, students relieved stress and learned more about mental illness. Active Minds strives to create a campus environment where an open conversation about mental health is normal, help-seeking is encouraged, and students look out for themselves and each other.

Another resource available to students is the organization they are already affiliated with. Many in the Greek system agree that as a predominantly Greek school, SMU’s sororities, fraternities and the “status quo” can often serve as additional stressors to students’ lives.

“The SMU culture creates a great opportunity to gain friends and create relationships, but it fosters such an exclusivity that puts pressure on all involved,” junior Kylie Mink said.

However, these organizations can provide tremendous emotional support when turned to for help.

“The biggest resource sororities offer is support. Each member belongs to a group that will be there for them when they need it most, and that is invaluable when dealing with mental illness,” Delta Gamma member Samantha Morgan said. Members look out for each other and are great at discerning whether someone is just stressed or may need help.”

As vice president of social standards, Morgan oversees risk management, social events, member behavior, chapter morale and an honor board for disciplinary matters. She is also responsible for monitoring members’ mental health and emotional concerns.

“Everyone handles mental illness differently. Some girls act out, change their behavior, or seem very off when dealing with mental illness, so in that case, it’s clearer that they need help,” Morgan said. However, many people internalize their struggles, and you may never know that they are suffering.

A student’s emotional support system doesn’t have to be a specific organization or group on campus; it can be those living near them.

“SMU wants to commit to mental health, but they need to be taking the right steps,” senior Dylan Pitman said. “One thing I find more helpful than anything is the community in the dorm commons. By keeping a lot of people in a similar situation together in a communal space, especially for two years, usually gives you a solid friend group and individuals you can trust.”

To be a part of the solution, individuals should be aware of warning signs and symptoms. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, long-lasting sadness, drastic mood changes, lack of appetite, or the inability to concentrate may all indicate a mental health issue. Even starting an open dialogue about psychological wellbeing can do wonders for anyone suffering.

“We live in a more aware and engaged world regarding mental health, but the stigma still exists,” Falwell said. “As a society, we can continue to grow to understand that mental health is one part of our human health.”

Everyone feels lonely, anxious and sad – but no one is talking about it.

One in four individuals will have a psychiatric disorder during the course of life. With such a high prevalence of mental health problems we need to reframe emotional problems as a normal part of life, and not as a shameful blemish, a personal weakness or a character flaw,” Psychology Today reported. College educational and anti-stigma campaigns can be extraordinarily helpful in this mission.

A culture that welcomes dialogue, promotes the means for student wellbeing and supports seeking help and guidance can create a dramatic transformation for struggling students.

Rizzo has come a long way since her diagnosis, but she is still learning how to manage her illness. Her depression comes in waves, and she can sense and prepare for crashes. Rizzo resumes counseling when she feels that she needs it, and she relies on friends and family when she is feeling hopeless.

“The best thing someone ever said to me about mental illness is that my illness is a part of me and I need to learn how to accept it,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo is still learning to accept this part of her. It is no easy journey, and it is essential to do what we can to make it a little bit easier for others out there.

“I hope to see a campus where no student feels unloved, unworthy, or unable to ask for help,” Rizzo said.

If you are in crisis, text “HOME” to 741-741 to reach theCrisis Text Line or call theNational Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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