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Why is Mental Health Important?

While navigating educational and career goals and combatting personal challenges, your mental health hugely impacts the overall quality of your life.

A woman surrounded by plants, meditating with her eyes closed and hands over her chest

(Note: This article discusses suicide and other serious issues pertaining to mental health.)

Whether through a minor bump in your journey or a full-blown crisis, you may have struggled with your mental health in some capacity in the last few years. Faced with a seemingly endless onslaught of bad news on top of life’s usual challenges, it can be difficult to prioritize yourself while pursuing educational and professional goals. Focusing on your mental health is perhaps the most powerful step you can take to improve your overall quality of life.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 1 in 5 adults now lives with a moderate to severe mental health condition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) further notes that over 50% of Americans will be diagnosed with mental illness in their lifetime. But what exactly is mental health, and why is it so important?

What is Mental Health?

Dr. Darleen Dempster with the text Dr. Darleen DempsterThe U.S. Department of Health and Human Services refers to mental health as a person’s “emotional, psychological and social well-being.

“When in a state of good mental health, a person has a general positive outlook, can accomplish daily tasks, maintain relationships and engage in meaningful recreation,” said Dr. Darleen Dempster, a Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) clinical faculty member in the clinical mental health counseling program. “This includes a sense of balance and empowerment to set boundaries and address life and work goals, step by step.”

In addition to the impact that mental health has on your day-to-day life, serious mental health issues can affect your relationships, career, education and long-term goals. As rates of mental illness increase worldwide, addressing your mental health challenges as they arise can change —or even save — your life.

Why is Mental Health Important for Students?

The World Heath Organization (WHO) reports a sharp rise in the number of people experiencing mental illness in recent years, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating mental health problems throughout the world. For students, it is more important than ever to address your mental health issues to stay mentally healthy and keep up with your educational and personal goals.

Even before the pandemic, mental health was a prominent concern for students. In 2019, the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) noted that many students reported feeling exhausted, lonely and overwhelmed, among other symptoms and difficulties (NCHA PDF Source). Of the surveyed students, 20.2% reported experiencing depression and 27.8% reported experiencing anxiety that affected their studies in the preceding year.

“College can be a stressful time as you manage academic demands on top of other life demands,” Dempster said. “However, just as many students can learn to be successful academically, you can also learn to manage and improve mental health outcomes, including managing stress.”

Ways to Cope with Stress

Stress management can be a vital aspect of student success, especially for busy students who may also be working or caring for others. Dempster and the CDC recommend several methods to help manage stress:

  • Adequate sleep
  • Avoidance of alcohol and substance abuse
  • Breaking down large tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks
  • Cultivating healthy relationships
  • Eating well
  • Exercising
  • Meditation, breathing exercises and other self-care activities

“At times, it is necessary also to set boundaries, to communicate needs, to be flexible to changing circumstances and to let go of perfectionistic standards,” Dempster said. “There should be no shame in seeking out mental health care as needed, just as one would not feel shame in seeking medical care for a persistent medical issue.”

Some colleges have free, real-time mental health services for students—for example, students at SNHU can access the school’s HelpU program. If you are a student struggling with mental health, look into what resources are available through your school.

How is Mental Health Connected to Physical Health?

The NIMH reports that some mental illnesses like depression and anxiety can cause physical symptoms that are otherwise unexplained. The CDC also reports that mental illness can increase the risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease and has recognized that severe mental illness can increase the likelihood of a person becoming seriously ill after contracting COVID-19. At the same time, chronic physical health issues can also contribute to mental health issues.

“Factors like proper diet, sleep and exercise can positively impact our mental health. Conversely, lack of sleep, poor diet and lack of exercise can impede our ability to manage stress and life’s demands,” Dempster said. “Sometimes mental health symptoms can lead to somatic symptoms due to tension, worrisome thoughts or other reactions. Therefore, there is a circular loop between mental and physical symptoms.”

What Are Examples of Mental Health Problems?

Mental health problems can affect your life in various ways, depending upon the issue or disorder. The following are examples of different mental health problems and their corresponding challenges and symptoms.

Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety disorders are a leading mental health issue globally, and the NIMH approximates that almost 1 in 3 people will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Symptoms of anxiety can range from tenseness or nervousness to panic attacks and physical illness. Anxiety can refer to generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, separation anxiety, specific phobias and other anxiety-based disorders.

Depression is another common disorder with the capacity to severely impact a person’s life, according to NIMH. Symptoms typically include persistent sadness, emptiness, irritability, impaired motivation, guilt or feelings of low self-worth. People with depression also may have difficulties focusing, aches, pains, digestive issues or changes in their sleep and eating habits.

Some of the most serious symptoms of depression are suicidal thoughts and actions. Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States overall—yet it is the 2nd leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10-14 and 24-34 and the 3rd leading cause of death for Americans 15-24 years old, per the NIMH. The CDC reports that suicide rates rose 30% between 2000 and 2020.

Trauma and Addiction

The psychological impact of a traumatic event or experience can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, unwanted memories, nightmares and panic attacks. Although the disorder is often associated with war veterans, a wide variety of traumatic experiences can lead to PTSD, like assault, abuse, serious accidents and loss.

Addiction is another mental health concern that has been on the rise in recent years, with drug overdose deaths having rapidly increased since the 1990s according to the CDC. Alcohol is the most abused substance, with 5.3% of deaths worldwide attributed to alcohol consumption, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Addiction is a complex disease that many are only able to overcome with professional help.

Other Disorders

Psychotic disorders are among the most stigmatized in our society, which only serves to further alienate people living with psychosis and seeking treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Psychosis is defined as a disconnect from reality by way of auditory/visual hallucinations, disorganized thinking or delusions. Some psychotic disorders include schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Despite misconceptions regarding psychosis and violence, the World Psychiatry Journal notes that experiencers of psychosis are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

Other common psychiatric disorders include Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, personality disorders like borderline personality disorder, and mood disorders like bipolar disorder. Each mental health disorder has its own set of challenges—and its own set of treatments.

What Are Warning Signs and Risk Factors of Mental Illness?

Some mental illnesses may be hereditary, while others are developed. Dempster notes a variety of warning signs that signal mental health issues as well as additional risk factors that can lead to mental health problems.

Some warning signs of mental illness are:

  • Appetite changes
  • Disruption of sleep
  • Engaging in risky behaviors (self-harm, sexual acting out, disordered eating or other compulsive behaviors)
  • Mental distress (worrisome thoughts, tension, insecurity)
  • Negative impacts on relationships (isolating, arguing, etc.)
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal thoughts

Other risk factors of mental illness include:

  • Adverse childhood experiences
  • Past or present trauma
  • Present or past experiences of being abused or assaulted
  • Sudden loss

If you are experiencing warning signs of mental illness, consider reaching out to a professional for help. If someone you know is struggling with any of these symptoms, Dempster recommends the “QPR” approach.

“A great way to help a loved one into care is to remember the acronym QPR, which stands for Question, Persuade, Refer,” Dempster said. “Question: Directly ask the individual you are concerned about how they are doing, sharing your care and concern. Persuade: Talk to the person about the benefits of seeking out care with a mental health professional who can provide support and resources to address overwhelming thoughts and feelings. Refer: Support the individual in seeking out care by helping them to find available care, helping them to make an appointment or even taking them to the appointment.”

What Mental Health Treatments and Resources Are Available?

A variety of treatment options exist for different mental health issues. “There are times that some mental health problems can be treated by increasing self-care, accessing one’s support system and by careful problem-solving and communication,” Dempster said. “However, there are other times that professional mental health care, including therapy, medication or some other form of treatment offered by a professional can help to address mental health problems much more expediently through evidence-based methods.”

Many patients visit multiple mental health providers–for example, seeing a psychiatrist regarding medications and a therapist for more frequent counseling sessions. Consult the Mayo Clinic’s guide to finding a mental health provider, and reach out to your health insurance provider to find mental health services near you. You can also use Psychology Today’s expansive directory to help locate a provider in your area, and Findtreatment.gov offers a substance abuse treatment locator tool. For serious mental health concerns, The National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has an early serious mental health treatment locator tool to find treatment centers in the United States.

“Historically, there has been a stigma with seeking mental health care that is not evident in seeking care for physical problems, and this stigma prolonged the suffering of many needlessly and has even cost lives,” Dempster said. “Seeking out care for mental health concerns is a sign of strength and there is robust evidence that demonstrates that mental health care is effective.”

If you or someone you know needs help now, consult these resources or contact a professional mental health provider. In the event of an emergency, please call 911.

Mars Girolimon '21 is a writer and student at Southern New Hampshire University, pursuing a master's in English and creative writing. Connect with them on LinkedIn.

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