Understanding Mental Health

Understanding Mental Health

Editor’s Note: The first week of May in Canada is celebrated as Mental Health Week by Canadian Mental Health Association. This event is held to encourage people from all walks of life to learn, talk, reflect and engage with others on all issues relating to mental health. For this issue, our contributor would also like to raise awareness on mental health issue for Indonesia Mengglobal.

Project LETS at Brown holding one of its occasional Nightly Room hours, everyone is welcome to drop by and do homework, take study break, destress with some coloring activities, and talk to the Peer Mental Health Advocates for support (Facebook photo courtesy of Project LETS at Brown)

Project LETS at Brown holding one of its occasional Nightly Room hours, everyone is welcome to drop by and do homework, take study break, destress with some coloring activities, and talk to the Peer Mental Health Advocates for support (Facebook photo courtesy of Project LETS at Brown)

It was almost four years ago that I received my college acceptance letter and ultimately decided to pursue my higher education in the United States. Naturally, every time the adults around me heard this news—be it my own parents, extended family members, family friends, and my close friends’ parents—they would generously offer few (or for some, way too many to remember!) words of wisdom about living far from home for the first time.

“Jaga kesehatan ya. Kalau di sana sakit, kan sendirian, nanti siapa yang rawat?”

“Kalau ditawarin minuman di bar atau coba yang aneh-aneh, jangan mau. Pulang ke dorm juga jangan sampe terlalu malam, bahaya kalau jalan sendirian gelap-gelap.”

“Belajar yang rajin, jalin relasi positif dengan profesor. Tapi jangan cuma belajar juga, usahain aktif di beberapa organisasi buat koneksi.”

Stay physically healthy and safe, study hard, but also leave some time to socialize and have fun—those are the key takeaways that I kept on reminding myself, as I counted down the days to my departure.

None of them, however, mentioned anything about mental health; the very generic “jangan sampe stress ya” is probably the only one that touches on this issue.

At the time, too, I never thought that taking care of one’s mental well-being would be a challenge. Instead, I was much more concerned about surviving without Indonesian food for more than a month and keeping myself warm during the dreary, cold New England winter.

Fast forward to this day, a lot has changed about my views toward mental health, especially among college students in the United States, where I have first-hand experience with.

Contrarily, having born and raised in Indonesia for the first 18 years of my life, I find mental health issues are very rarely discussed among the environment that I grew up in. Furthermore, sometimes it seems like taboo or stigmatized to raise this issue. Instead, people often make fun of it.

This, indeed, is quite disheartening.

Now, some of you may wonder what mental health even means. According to US Department of Health and Human Services, mental health is an umbrella term that encompasses one’s “emotional, psychological, and social well-being”.[1] Just like we get physically sick from time to time, we can also experience mental health problems at one point or another. There are many contributing factors that may lead to mental health problems, such as biological (e.g. your gene, past injury, brain chemistry), abusive or traumatic experiences, as well as family history of mental illness.

You may have heard about anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, and eating disorders, all of which are considered as mental illnesses. There are few others that you may not be as familiar with—schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, to name a few. Note that this does not mean that you are going out of your mind! In fact, their symptoms are identifiable, and recovery is possible.

There are no universal treatments that apply to everyone. For some people, receiving support from peers and family members, as well as incorporating positive habits into their lives may be sufficient for recovery. For some others, however, prescribed medication and psychotherapy may be more effective; this is especially true when the root of the problems is biological.

So, how is it relevant for us who are currently studying abroad, or planning to do so?

Bake sale to help raise fund for the 2nd Annual Ivy League Mental Health Conference, an event that brings together students from eight different American universities to attend workshops and have open discussions about mental wellness (Facebook photo courtesy of Maddy DiGiovanni)

Bake sale to help raise fund for the 2nd Annual Ivy League Mental Health Conference, an event that brings together students from eight different American universities to attend workshops and have open discussions about mental wellness (Facebook photo courtesy of Maddy DiGiovanni)

Well, being far away from home with much lesser support system in itself is already a challenge for those who study abroad. That, added with the possibility of competitive atmosphere of the school that one attends and the pressure to succeed from those around them can significantly affect their mental well-being.

For low-income, first-generation college students, it is the pressure to make the sacrifices their family members have made worthwhile and to improve the socioeconomic condition of their families. For those with a more privileged background, it is the pressure to live up to the expectations from their social circle and to prove their own merits.

It is important to realize that everyone is prone to mental illnesses, regardless of their socioeconomic and demographic background. In the words of perhaps one of the overused quotes of all time: never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes—especially not when their filtered Instagram or Facebook posts are all we can see. Being financially stable does not necessarily translate to being happy. In fact, upper-middle class American teenagers are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, compared to those from other socioeconomic backgrounds.[2]

Project LETS at Brown is a student initiative that offers peer support for people who are struggling with mental illness and advocate to erase the stigma surrounding them (Facebook photo courtesy of Project LETS at Brown)

Project LETS at Brown is a student initiative that offers peer support for people who are struggling with mental illness and advocate to erase the stigma surrounding them (Facebook photo courtesy of Project LETS at Brown)

If this article resonates with you, please know that you’re not alone. Depression and anxiety are the two most prevalent mental illnesses among students. The American College Health Association reported that in 2014, 15.8% and 13.1% of college students have been diagnosed with, or treated for, anxiety and depression, respectively.[3] If that is the case, talk to someone you trust; it’s not a battle that you need to fight alone.

That said, however, realize that ultimately, only you can help yourself—and believe me, I’m not saying that lightly.

Always remember to take care of yourself: go work out, take a walk, watch a movie, pick up a good book, anything you find enjoyable. It is equally important to perform well in our duties as it is to have a sufficient “me time”. Dedicating some time to do these things will help you in getting back fresh for doing your tasks. These little self-care habits do add up, and they will help prevent you from hitting the rock bottom all at once during stressful periods.

Perhaps, you’re thinking of getting professional help. If your school has a counseling service, sign up for one. It may help, it may not. Either way, it is worth a try. There’s nothing shameful about having a mental illness; as this article illustrates, it is more common than you might think.

Brown students can make an appointment, free-of-charge, with professional therapists at the Counseling and Psychological Services (Photo courtesy of Marianna McMurdock, The Brown Daily Herald)

Brown students can make an appointment, free-of-charge, with professional therapists at the Counseling and Psychological Services (Photo courtesy of Marianna McMurdock, The Brown Daily Herald)

And to those of you who notice that a friend is not quite themselves lately, ask them how are they doing. If they want to talk, offer to listen and let them know that you’re there to help. A simple act of kindness really goes a long way.

I realize that this article only scratches the surface of mental health issues. I am by no means an expert on the subject matter. It has been quite a learning experience for me too. I started out knowing nothing about it when I first came to the US. Then, having had some tough times myself during my second and third year, I learned how to seek support from my friends and take a better care of my mental well-being. I started to work out regularly and eat wholesome food, two habits that I keep today. I also develop friendships with some people who struggle with mental disorders and consequently, try to be their support system. Simple gestures like asking how they are doing, showing them funny videos when they are upset, or inviting them for a nice meal or an on-campus dance show will mean a lot to them.

All those different experiences make me realize that taking care of one’s mental, not just physical, well-being is something that is very important to those who wish to study abroad. After all, only then one can truly make the most out of their experience.

If you’d like to learn more about it, this special report published by Boston University, Mental Health Matters, offers a more comprehensive discussion on the subject matter, focusing specifically on college students.


Photos provided by author and flickr

[1] “What is Mental Health?” MentalHealth.gov. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 12 Mar 2013. Web. 22 Apr 2017.

[2] Hamilton, Audrey. “The mental price of affluence” Audio blog post. Speaking of Psychology, n.d. American Psychological Association. Web. 22 Apr 2017.

[3] Brown, Joel. “Anxiety and Depression” Mental Health Matters. BU Today, 2 Oct 2016. Web. 22 Apr 2017.




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Tiffany is a college senior studying Applied Math-Computer Science at Brown University. Current interests include data science and interactive data visualization, software engineering, and sustainable development. Tiffany can be reached at tiffanycitra95@gmail.com.
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