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Q&A: Trends in College Students Mental Health

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Dr. Janet Osimo

Dr. Osimo — who specializes in suicide prevention, non-traditional students, the LGBTQ community, and the effect of interventions on brain change — will discuss mental health issues experienced by undergraduate and graduate college students, how to recognize signs, how to help someone seek help and the growing concern of suicide among students.

The following Q&A with Dr. Osimo touches on some of the topics that pertain to her presentation.

Q: What are the most common mental health problems you see on campus?

A: What we’re seeing is — first of all — a lot more students than before. Our numbers of students coming through the door have doubled since 2004.

Some of the most common things we see them for now are anxiety and depression. In the past it’s been roommate issues or adjusting to college, and while those issues are still there, we’re seeing significant increases in anxiety and depression.

Q: Why do you think that is?

A: There are a number of reasons for this. These are students with a lot more pressure in terms of what it takes to get into college and to stay in college. There’s a lot of pressure on students’ performance.

This is also a generation that has been very structured and has had a lot of parent involvement, and when students go off to college, there’s of course a marked drop off in that involvement.

So students are faced with navigating on their own and making decisions on their own, which they haven’t had to do for most of their lives. When all these things come together, it becomes a press cooker.

Q: Does mental illness go away if left untreated?

A: With any sort of mental health issue, whether it’s a mental illness or more common anxiety, it ebbs and flows depending on what stressors are happening.

The research shows that if you have more a complicated mental illness that is left untreated, it gets worse and stays around longer. Research also shows that early intervention can have a significant impact and can help prevent problems from worsening.

Q: Can a good diet, proper exercise and sleep reduce the symptoms of mental illness?

A: What the research is showing is that sleep is as important — if not more important — than exercise and diet. One of the first things people can do just to alleviate depression is to get better rest. Of course, this could be more difficult in some cases, but it is incredibly important.

Exercise is important as well because it can boost your metabolism and brain chemistry, which influences your mental health. Nutrition is also incredibly important, especially as we find out more about sugar and how our moods can plummet depending on what we’re eating.

And it’s not just food; alcohol and all those things can contribute to our mood and exacerbate depression that is already occurring.

Q: How do I help my friend or family member who I am concerned may be depressed?

A: This is a big thing we talk a lot about. Talking to people is key, and if you notice that there’s been a big change in their behavior, say something. Talk to them about what you’ve noticed and what the behavior change has been.

Are they withdrawing more? Not going to class? Sleeping a lot? People remember how you make them feel, so if can simply show care and compassion, that can go a long way.

Many times people are relieved that someone has noticed, so just bringing it up can be very therapeutic for the individual. Also be prepared to offer resources and to be involved, whether it’s a phone call or going with them to an appointment. It’s important to show them that they’re not alone and that you care.

Q: Does drinking or smoking marijuana make a person at higher risk for developing mental illness?

A: If someone is predisposed to depression, certain alcohol and substances are not going to help that. As we know, alcohol is a depressant and will exacerbate any prepotency individuals have toward depression.

Marijuana can also exacerbate psychotic symptoms for families who are predisposed to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. For my students that have a predisposition in the family, I try to stress deterring them from smoking.

And for people who have been diagnosed and taking medication, alcohol dilutes the impact of antidepressants and takes away from the effectiveness.

Q: Why is it important to educate the community about mental illness?

A: Recognizing the signs of depression and other mental illnesses, helping someone seek help or knowing how to bring it up, these things are so important. I’d also like to mention the concern of suicide as the second leading cause of death among college students.

Everything we can do to educate the college community to recognize the signs and intervene, speak up and say something to an individual is so critical. We have to realize that people with suicidal thoughts are really good at hiding it.

Also, a lot of folks think of depression as being rolled up in corner and crying, and it doesn’t always look like that — it can be very functional, with a smile on the face — when deep inside the person is suffering.

Whether we talk about it directly or discuss it among our friends, we as a society have to approach it with a more open mind that will help people who are suffering with mental illness come out of the shadows.

Dr. Janet Osimo, a psychologist in the Counseling and Psychological Services Center at UCSB, will be the featured speaker for this month’s NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) meeting at 7 pm, Oct. 22 at the Mental Wellness Center, 617 Garden Street.

Her presentation, titled “Trends in College Student Mental Health,” is free and open to the public.

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For more information, contact Gracie Huerta at 805.884.8440 x3206 or ghuerta@mentalwellnesscenter.org.

November 2, 2015

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