Mental health issues like depression and anxiety are a growing concern for college students. Demand for counseling services at University of Wisconsin campuses has increased by more than 50% since 2010. According to the World Health Organization, most lifetime mental disorders manifest before the age of 24.
Psychologists with Wraparound Milwaukee, a service of the Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Division, are looking to increase awareness about the importance of early detection. They say spotting signs of mental illness early can connect patients to treatment sooner and lessen the severity of a diagnosis.
"When young people go off to college, they face certain stresses … and this can be the time that mental illnesses sometimes start to emerge,” says Dr. Steven Dykstra, a clinical psychologist with Milwaukee County Behavioral Health. “When they’re away from home, when they’re not in the company of people who know them well. And in some cases that can really delay and disrupt identifying those challenges."
Dykstra says in order to distinguish between normal stress and something more serious, look at whether it’s disrupting one’s work performance, academic performance, and normal routine.
“It’s very appropriate to worry about your midterms,” Dykstra says. “It’s less appropriate to worry about your midterms all the time for weeks and weeks coming up, you’re not sleeping, you can’t get along with people … that’s a worry that’s gone too far.”
Dr. Maria Elena Perez, director of behavioral health with Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, says if a young person is emotionally struggling, they can reach out to a friend or, if they're a student, their campus counseling center. But Dykstra notes that sometimes it’s hard to recognize those signs within yourself.
“Family members who are away from these young adults, they can call, they can reach out, they can seek assistance,” Dykstra says. Milwaukee County Behavioral Health crisis services can be reached at 414-257-7222.
Perez says stigma still holds people back from asking for help, but “there’s movement.”
“I do see that young people are receptive to being more open about talking about what they’re struggling with,” Perez says.
The college years often come with an increase in risky behaviors, like alcohol use. Perez says staying away from unhealthy activities, getting adequate sleep, eating well, and keeping yourself from becoming socially isolated are important steps to prevent mental illness.
“Really taking care of oneself physically, I think that’s where it starts,” say Perez. “Unfortunately when one is faced with the first freedoms of young adult life, they want to stay out late, they want to party with their friends. Really just keeping that in moderation and scaling back when needed, it’s really important to have a healthy lifestyle.”
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