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Start the Conversation, Banish the Stigma

Most young adults go off to college with a textbook full of health information stuffed into their skulls. They get the lecture about sex, including birth control and protection against disease. (It only takes once, people!) They hopefully know the symptoms of both alcohol poisoning and bacterial meningitis, and are aware of possible fungal transmission when showering sans water shoes. (It only takes once, people!)

In the context of this wealth of information, the lack of similar conversation about mental-health issues — which students are far more likely to face than meningitis — can be downright troubling.

“So many people, parents in particular, don’t think of starting that conversation. They’re hoping their young adult will go off to college and be OK,” says Tracy Markle, clinical director of Collegiate Coaching Services. “So when everything’s not OK, we find stigma alone is one of our biggest challenges in getting young adults the help they need.”

At CAPS — the acronym for CU’s Counseling and Psychological Services — Dr. Dorothy Moon often meets students reluctant to ask for mental-health help, or who are ignorant of available mental-health resources.

“Sometimes they won’t go for help, they won’t talk about it and they’ll suffer in silence,” says Moon. “Common excuses we hear are ‘I’m the only one going through this problem or mental-health issue’ and ‘No one will understand me if I share’ or ‘I don’t need help and can deal with this all on my own.'”

The result of such attitudes can be an untreated health concern that’s just as serious as when a minor infection is ignored despite readily available care. Ignorance about available treatment, Moon says, is why CAPS does outreach work to make sure students know they do not have to deal with mental-health issues on their own, and that there are a plethora of resources they can lean on —no stigma attached.

“‘My problem is not big enough.’ I’ve heard that one, too, but we will not turn you away,” she says.

Like any other medical care, she adds, “It’s important to seek help early.”

Warning signs

The most common reasons young adults seek mental-health services include anxiety, depression, relationship problems and addiction, and such issues are often not mental illnesses. But young adults should ask for help when any mental-health concern is affecting their quality of life — or seems to be affecting the life of a friend or loved one.

In terms of possible warning signs in yourselves or others, “The biggies are isolation, when somebody starts dropping out of contact, not returning phone calls,” says Markle, who notes that lack of communication or troubling communication can also be seen on social media, like Twitter or Facebook.

“Or maybe they’re staying in bed, not going to class, coming home late, being under the influence on a regular basis, or their hygiene isn’t good,” she says. “Maybe you’re not seeing them eat, or they’re not going to the cafeteria with you anymore.”

Whether you feel yourself falling into these behaviors or worry about such signs in others, CAPS should be your first stop or first recommendation. Even if its counseling and group work are not the best fit for a specific mental-health concern, they’re the epicenter of all available help, able to connect students with other resources both on and off campus.

First and foremost, though, bring up the subject. Talk about mental health. Don’t be afraid to speak about how you’re feeling or to ask others about themselves, in both cases with kindness and without judgement. The more frank, caring conversations we have about mental health, the more we decrease negative stigma.

“Walk the talk. The more you’re open, the more a friend or family member will be open with you,” says Moon. “I think any transition or major change like going off to college will really test you, but it’s a great learning opportunity and growth opportunity.”

So, ask for help and be of help. During a possibly dark and dangerous time for someone, a simple and kind intervention to show you care could drastically change or even save a life.

Save a life

If you’re worried someone you care about is considering suicide, encourage them to talk about their feelings but do not feel obligated to keep promises of confidentiality, says Moon. Responsibility for another person’s life is too much for one person to take on, which is why suicide-prevention resources exist. She offered these tips as well:

•If a person is not in immediate danger, turn to CAPS or a trusted adult like an RA, parent or doctor. If a person feels comfortable confiding in you about suicidal feelings, they usually are asking for help to not kill themselves. Connect them with that help to the best of your ability.

•Ask the person you’re worried about if they have a plan, and if so, if they have the means to follow through with the plan on hand (such as pills or other drugs) or a time scheduled. In this case, call 911 or the CU police. If possible, confiscate the pills or other means to give to authorities.

•While waiting for help, do not leave the person physically alone. Also, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 and allow their operators to soothe or distract the person until help arrives.

•Lastly, as someone who has gone through a traumatic experience, don’t be afraid to seek help for yourself afterward.