‘No symptom too small’: Mental health resources for students adjusting to school – Duluth News Tribune

BEMIDJI, Minn. — Starting college can be a stressful experience for anyone, as students encounter a new environment, new people and a surprisingly long list of new expectations and responsibilities. This can make students feel overwhelmed, anxious and depressed.

Often away from home and their previous support systems, it is not uncommon for students to struggle with their mental health and these issues are increasing.

A recent study, part of the Healthy Minds Network, which analyzes mental health trends among college populations, found that about 60 percent of college students met criteria for one or more mental health problems in the past year. This is a nearly 50% increase since the survey began in 2013.

“As students go back to school, we know there is an increase in anxiety,” said Kirsten Kraft, clinical manager and behavioral health specialist at Sanford Health. “Being away from your family is stressful, especially for newer students.”

For students in particular, the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have been unusual. The sudden transition to online learning, and now the transition back to face-to-face classes, has caused many students to face additional and unexpected stress.

“There are the typical challenges, but now this group of students has had this period of time with online learning. Now they’re in the middle of two transitions: back to full-time and going to college,” said Jennifer Freke, a nurse practitioner at Bemidji State University.

Bemidji State, which participated in the Healthy Minds Network study thanks to the work of Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Sarah Cronin, already has its own numbers on student mental health.

Jennifer Fryk works as a nurse practitioner at Bemidji State University’s Student Health and Counseling Services located in Cedar Hall.

Annalize Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Among Bemidji State students alone in 2021, 32% screened positive for anxiety and 37% screened positive for depression, while 49% received a mental health diagnosis at some point in their lives.

With growing numbers like these, the importance of discussing mental health with students and providing access to resources and treatment has also increased.

“Huge adjustments can lead to greater stressors, and those stressors can release more mental health symptoms than normal,” said Amanda Gartner, a mental health counselor at Bemidji State. “We’re really pushing to destigmatize mental health. Everyone is welcome (to seek help), no symptom is too small.

Signs that someone might be struggling

Recognizing potential signs of mental health problems is key, but it’s important to remember that mental health manifests differently for each individual. Something that is unusual for one person may be typical for another.

“It’s so individual, each person manifests with different things,” Frick explained. “Some people present with physical symptoms and come to see me because of lack of appetite, stomach pain, inability to eat or sleep.”

Sometimes when a student approaches Fraik with these concerns, the conversation begins to reveal reasons that may be more related to the student’s mental health.

“Then I usually introduce the idea that it might be helpful to talk to one of our counselors and talk about any concerns you might have or any symptoms we’ve found medically,” Frick said.

While stress and mental health concerns can manifest physically for some people, for others the signs can take a different form, such as social withdrawal or being easily irritable.

“Especially if people are feeling more depressed, (a sign can be) withdrawal from things they would normally do, irritability is often a common thing that we see,” Gartner said. “It’s easier to be angry than to feel sad or anxious, or maybe you’re so tired of holding it together that you suddenly start lashing out at everyone.”

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Amanda Gartner is a mental health consultant at Bemidji State University’s Student Health and Counseling Services located in Cedar Hall.

Annalize Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Significant changes in behavior and mood can be a sign that someone is struggling with their mental health, and they can be difficult to recognize even for the individual going through them.

“You are not on a continuum compared to everyone else. You’re on your own continuum,” Frick said. “Our goal is to help people early on when they start to realize they’re struggling a little bit with anything in life.”

Once you notice someone is struggling, the next step is to talk to them about it. Gartner explained that it is important to validate their feelings and see if they would be willing to go to a consultant or other professional.

Although these conversations may be uncomfortable at first, there are resources available on how to have them. Kraft, who operates a local mobile crisis line, stressed that anyone is welcome to call, even if they are a parent looking for advice on how to talk about mental health with their child.

“Normalizing that experience of how difficult it must be for them (is important) and exploring it with them,” Craft said. “By asking, ‘If you can’t talk to me, would you like me to find someone you can talk to?’

Knowing what local resources are available is also helpful to include in these conversations.

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Resources are available in the Bemidji State University Student Health and Counseling Services waiting area to help students with their mental and physical health.

Annalize Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

For students, most campuses have some form of counseling. There are also off-campus resources that these offices can refer students to.

When students return to school, their mental health and well-being should be a priority. It is normal for people of any age to have difficulties in a stressful situation, and discussing and dealing with these issues can help them not grow up.

“It’s good to talk about it,” Frick said. “No matter what the topic is, it’s important to take care of it.”

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