College students struggle with mental health issues

In many ways, Sarah Spitz looks and acts like your typical college student.

Highly competitive, Spitz studies hard. She likes comedies and dramatic films. She loves pizza. And she likes to hang out with the close friends she’s made at Emory University.

But the sophomore psychology major also suffers from bouts of depression and borderline personality disorder. She wears long sleeves and bracelets to cover places where she’s cut her arm. Since high school, she has attempted suicide three times.

There are times when Spitz feels alone and so overwhelmed with classwork that she can’t get out of bed. When things are really bad, she may sleep for only a couple of hours a night or find herself battling against feelings of being out of control.

Few people know of her struggle.

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But lately, Spitz has felt in greater control of her life. She recently “came clean” about her private battles to more than 400 people during a program benefiting Active Minds, an organization formed to help remove the stigma associated with mental illness and to raise awareness among college students. Spitz is the president of Emory’s chapter.

“Being honest and open about it helps in my recovery,” Spitz said. “I’m not one of those people who wear all black. Mental illness doesn’t look a certain way. I want to show that it can affect anyone.”

Mental illness can have an impact on all facets of a young person’s journey though college, including dropping out, taking longer to complete a degree and — worst-case scenario — suicide.

Atlanta photographer Billy Howard has tackled the topic of mental health in people from their late teens into early adulthood in a photography project, “Step Inside My Head: Teens Speak Out on Mental Health.” He hopes to turn it into a traveling exhibit in the fall, and he has partnered with the national office of Active Minds. Spitz is one of the participants.

The project began when Howard was awarded a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship.

“I like to offer a voice to people who are stigmatized or not part of the conversation about the issues they are living with,” he said. “They have a lot to teach us about how we live and deal with illness. The vast majority of people living with mental illness are functioning, contributing people — young and old — who are forced to be silent about what they are going through or face repercussions.”

Mental health experts say it’s unfortunate that most public discussions and media coverage about mental health on campuses only occur when there is an extreme case of violence, such as the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech that left more than 30 people dead.

The transition to adulthood — whether or not a person is in college — can be a stressful time. For college students, in particular, they may be moving away from home and leaving an established support system for the first time in their lives.

“You would certainly expect someone to go through their life and at some point have a physical illness, but you wouldn’t expect someone to go through his life and at some point have a mental illness?” said Mark McLeod, the director of Emory’s Counseling and Psychological Services program. “There’s no rational reason for that.”

Emory, like many universities and colleges, has counseling services available for students. The university recently added a suicide prevention coordinator. Emory also offers training to faculty and staff to recognize the warning signs and to be able to have conversations with students and refer them to support services.

Emory has seen a 40 percent jump in the number of students seeking help over the past four years. McLeod said the increase “is likely the result of both increased requests for mental health care as a result of outreach and stigma reduction and increases in levels of stress, anxiety, depression and other mental-health-related challenges in our students.”

Mental illness can be especially hard on women, said Lani V. Jones, a visiting scholar at Spelman College and an expert on on black women and mental health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women, blacks, Latinos and non-Hispanic people of other races or multiple races are more likely to suffer from depression.

“As black women, we’re told to be strong and to go out there and do what needs to be done. We’re taught not to talk about our issues. It’s a family matter,” Jones said. “We have a whole group of students who don’t have spaces to talk about the trauma in their lives. “

But Jones said mental wellness should go hand in hand with any conversations about physical health. “It’s the center of everything,” she said.

It is for Eric Clark of Decatur, a 22-year-old sophomore psychology major at Georgia Perimeter College.

Clark, who is a member of Active Minds, first noticed problems in high school. He said he felt isolated and depressed. He felt under pressure to fit in. “You’re pushing yourself to be something you’re not,” he said.

As he got older, his confidence grew but he would still experience bouts of depression and anger. When he graduated and joined the military, he sought out counseling.

He’s learned how to cope and handle those blue periods.

Said Clark: “It’s OK to get help. If you hold it in, it only makes it worse.”

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