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The Flourish, May 2022: In the Spotlight

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Well-Being and Mental Illness 

Think about the word wellness. What does it feel like for you to be well? What emotions come up?  What is it like in your body? What are the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and sensations that you associate with feeling healthy? Your answers are probably different from your friends’ answers, which is totally normal. Wellness is not a verifiable biometric standard; it’s as unique as you and your experience in your body. It’s a complex combination of physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual elements, and many of our presumptions around “wellness” are culturally determined. This is further complicated by the fact that the majority of psychology research (around 80%) is done in WEIRD populations— western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies— while these people only make up about 12% of the world population. For this reason, even our scientific understanding of what it means to be well is skewed. 

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Two Continua

Two Continua

Having a mental illness is not the same thing as being unwell, just as someone can be unwell without necessarily having a mental illness. One way to think of it is as two continua:

  • On one continuum, we have “high mental health” on one side and “low mental health” on the other. “High mental health” refers to the presence of positive elements in one’s life contributing to their well-being, such as fulfilling social connections, a sense of purpose, and being well rested and fed. “Low mental health” refers to the absence of positive elements. 
  • On the other spectrum, we have “high mental illness” and “low mental illness.” High mental illness refers to the presence of psychological symptoms, while low mental illness refers to the absence of symptoms. Everyone is somewhere on both continua at any given time.
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Cultivating Wellness and/or Managing Symptoms

College can be an especially hard time to cultivate wellness and/or manage symptoms. Research shows that college students often struggle with mental health due to increased academic pressure, separating and individuating from their family, and having to take on certain responsibilities and interpersonal milestones without the skills and experience to feel confident in doing so. In addition, many mental health disorders have their peak onset in young adulthood, and the stress of attending university can exacerbate pre-existing conditions.

The most common mental health conditions among those in college are

  • Anxiety disorders, which affect around 31% of college students, and are characterized by worry or fear that does not get better with time. People with anxiety disorders can often feel wound up or on-edge and experience physical symptoms as a result of their anxiety. 
  • Depression, which affects around 28% of college students, and is characterized by persistent sadness, apathy, and/or feelings of guilt. People with depression can struggle with daily activities and can experience fatigue, disrupted sleep, and cognitive difficulties as a result of their depression, in addition to other physical symptoms. 
  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, which affects around 15.9% of college students, and is a consistent pattern of inattention, hyperactivity, and/or impulsivity that interferes with a person’s ability to complete daily tasks. Some individuals with ADHD experience primarily inattentive symptoms, while others experience primarily hyperactive symptoms, and some demonstrate both equally. ADHD symptoms can make social, work, and academic responsibilities more difficult. 
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which affects around 4% of college students, and is characterized by uncontrollable and recurring thoughts (obsessions) and uncontrollable and repeated behaviors (compulsions). People with OCD can experience intense distress from their thoughts, in which their rituals and behaviors provide a temporary feeling of relief. 
  • Bipolar Disorder, which affects around 3% of college students, and is characterized by cycles in mood and energy, with manic periods of intense motivation and euphoria and depressive periods of sadness and apathy. Individuals with bipolar disorder can also experience mixed episodes with both manic and depressive symptoms, or hypomanic episodes, which are a less intense form of mania.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder, which affects around .7 to 1.9% of college students, and impacts how individuals interact with others, communicate, learn, and present themselves. People with Autism Spectrum Disorder can experience difficulties in reading or displaying emotion and interpreting social cues. They can also be more sensitive to sensory input such as lighting, noise, clothing texture, or temperature, and can struggle with changes in routine or transitions.
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Having a mental health diagnosis is nothing to be ashamed of!

While the label of a disorder can be helpful for seeking community and treatment, the idea of what it means for certain emotions or behaviors to be pathological is the subject of much scholarly debate. There is no scientific consensus on the meaning of a “mental disorder,” and regardless, experiencing a mental illness does not mean you are broken and flawed in any way. Everyone is a kaleidoscope of their own unique strengths and weaknesses, and having a mental health condition doesn’t mean you can’t be well and flourish. 

Granting Yourself Self-Compassion and Self-Acceptance

If you have a mental health condition, it’s important (though tricky!) to grant yourself self-compassion and self-acceptance. People can often feel pressure to conform to certain standards or “perform” normalcy, and narratives around “resilience” can lead people to believe that they should be able to just “tough it out” and function. Cultivating true resilience involves the opposite of toughing it out— it entails increasing your self-care, which preserves your wellness until things get easier, and often in itself increases your capacity. If you want to increase your wellness, filling your cup with positive elements to increase your mental health is a wonderful way to start. So give yourself some TLC!  And remember— you have everything you need to succeed (and more), and you’re on your own unique journey, exactly where you’re supposed to be. 

Additional Resources

  • ADHD Comorbidity Structure and Impairment: Results of the WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project (WMH-ICS) This study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders was intended to examine the prevalence of ADHD and comorbid disorders in college students based on the findings of the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project (WMH-ICS). The surveys were conducted with first-year students in 24 colleges spread across 9 countries. 
  • College Students: Mental Health Problems and Treatment Considerations This academic article from the Acad Psychiatry Journal addresses the unique developmental and psychological challenges college students face. The article goes into detail about the most prevalent mental conditions among the college population and the implications this has on treatment.
  • Well-Being Tips Curated by Well-Being at Stanford and students, these well-being tips are organized by approximately how much time is needed to experience them (< 10 minutes, < 10-60 minutes, > 60 minutes)
  • The Healthy Minds Study: 2021 Winter/Spring Data Report The Healthy Minds Study is a research initiative that surveys the mental health landscape of universities across the country. This data report is the result of the 2021 survey cycle and features the results from a randomly selected sample of enrolled students from participating colleges intended to help universities identify community needs and evaluate the efficacy of policies and resources. 
  • What to Watch: Exploring Mental Health  This Stanford Daily article features a list of movies and TV shows (i.e. Queen’s Gambit, Inside Out, A Silent Voice, tick, tick…BOOM!, and more) selected by students that explore mental health and emotional well-being.