'No symptom is too small': Mental health resources for college students adjusting back to school
College students have unique risk factors for mental health, which is why it’s all the more important to normalize the conversation and become familiar with the resources that are available to help.
BEMIDJI — Heading off to college can be a stressful experience for anyone, as students are met with a new environment, new people and a surprisingly long list of new expectations and responsibilities.
While this can be exciting, it can also leave students feeling overwhelmed, anxious and depressed.
Often away from home and their previous support systems, it’s not uncommon for college students to struggle with their mental health and these issues are increasing.
That's where services like Bemidji State University's Student Health and Counseling Services come in, providing students resources and support to help with their mental health.
A recent study, part of the Healthy Minds Network which analyzes mental health trends among college populations, found that around 60% of students in the past year met the criteria for one or more mental health problems. This is a near 50% increase from when the study began in 2013.
“As students are returning to school, we know there’s an increase in anxiety,” said Kirsten Craft, clinical manager and behavioral health specialist with Sanford Health. “It’s stressful being away from your family, especially for newer students.”
Now alongside the usual adjustments, college students across the country have also faced the added stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years.
“The volumes (of mental health calls) have increased greatly from the pandemic,” Craft said, “and now as we’re getting further into it, reintegration back into communities and what people used to do is increasing some of those anxieties.”
For college students, in particular, the last two years have been unusual. The sudden transition to online learning, and now the transition back to in-person classes, has left many students facing additional and unexpected stress.
“There are the typical challenges, but now this group of students had this period of time with online learning. Now they’re in the middle of two transitions: back to in-person and going to college,” said Jennifer Fraik, a nurse practitioner at BSU.
BSU, which participated in the Healthy Minds Network survey thanks to the work of Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Sarah Cronin, now has its own numbers regarding student mental health.
Among just BSU students in 2021, 32% scored positively on an anxiety screening and 37% screened positive for depression while 49% have at one point in their life received a mental health diagnosis.
With numbers like these growing, the importance of discussing mental health with college students and providing them with access to resources and treatment has also increased.
“Huge adjustments can bring out bigger stressors and those stressors can release more mental health symptoms than normal,” said Amanda Gartner, a mental health counselor at BSU. “We really do push for destigmatizing mental health. Everyone is welcome (to seek help), no symptom is too small.”
Signs someone might be struggling
Recognizing potential signs of mental health difficulties is key, but it’s important to remember that mental health presents differently in each individual. Something that’s unusual for one person could be typical for another.
“It’s so individual, every person presents with different things," Fraik explained. "Some people present with body symptoms and come to see me for a lack of appetite, stomach pain, inability to eat or sleep.”
Sometimes when a student approaches Fraik with these concerns, the conversation starts to reveal causes that might be more related to the student’s mental health.
“That’s when I usually introduce the idea that it might be helpful to talk to one of our counselors and talk about any anxieties you might have, or whatever symptoms we uncovered on the medical side,” Fraik said.
While stress and mental health worries might express themselves physically for some people, for other people signs might take a different form like withdrawing socially or being easily irritable.
“Especially if people are feeling more depressed, (a sign could be) withdrawing from things they would normally do, irritability is often a common one we see,” Gartner shared. “It’s easier to be angry than to feel sad or anxious, or maybe you’re so tired of holding it all together that suddenly you’re snapping at everyone.”
Significant changes in behavior and mood can be a sign that someone is struggling with their mental health, and these can be difficult to recognize even for the individual going through them.
“There’s also this group that is very concerned that their issues aren’t severe enough for help. You see that especially with students on the perfectionist side because they are high achievers,” Gartner explained. “It can still be helpful to come and see us. Sometimes we have to break through that personal stigma as well.”
Recognizing these signs and deciding to seek help can be challenging, but it can be the first step toward helping alleviate and manage any mental health concerns.
“You’re not on a continuum as compared to everyone else. You’re on your own continuum,” Fraik said. “Our goal is to help people early when they’re starting to find out that they’re struggling a little bit with whatever it is in life.”
After noticing that someone is struggling, talking with them about it is the next step. Gartner explained that it’s important to validate their feelings and see if they would be willing to go to a counselor or other professional.
“Get their foot in the doorway, into medical, counseling, it doesn’t really matter — whatever they’re willing to do,” Gartner said.
While these conversations might be uncomfortable at first, there are resources available on how to have them. Craft, who works with a local mobile crisis line, emphasized that anyone is welcome to call, even if it’s a parent looking for advice on how to talk about mental health with their child.
“Normalizing that experience of how tough it must be for them (is important), and exploring it with them,” Craft said. “Asking 'If you can’t talk to me, would you like me to find someone you can talk to?'”
Knowing the resources available locally is also helpful to bring into those conversations.
“Sometimes it’s hard when you’re in a depressed state to find those resources, so to have those easily available can be really helpful,” Craft explained.
For college students, most campuses have some form of counseling available. There are also off-campus resources that those offices can direct students to.
In Bemidji, BSU and Northwest Technical College have counseling and health services, which can provide individual and group counseling, medication management and a number of other services. They can also help students access off-campus care, set up insurance plans and find other resources.
The local mobile crisis line (800) 422-0045, is also available for anyone to call. This line can be reached by someone in an active crisis, someone looking for advice or a list of resources or someone reaching out worried about a friend or family member.
As students return to school, their mental health and well-being should be a priority. It’s normal for individuals of any age in a stressful situation to have difficulties, and discussing and addressing these concerns can help keep them from growing.
“It’s OK to talk about it," Fraik said. "No matter what the topic is, it's important that we take care of it.”