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'No symptom is too small': Mental health resources for college students adjusting back to school

College students have unique risk factors for mental health, which is why it’s all the more important to normalize the conversation and become familiar with the resources that are available to help.

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Bemidji State University's Student Health and Counseling Services provides students resources and support to help with their mental health.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI, Minn. — Starting college can be a stressful experience for anyone, as students are met with a new environment, new people and a surprisingly long list of new expectations and responsibilities. It can leave students feeling overwhelmed, anxious and depressed.

Often away from home and their previous support systems, it’s not uncommon for college 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 around 60% of students in the past year met the criteria for one or more mental health problems. This is a near 50% increase from when the study began in 2013.

“As students are returning to school, we know there’s an increase in anxiety,” said Kirsten Craft, clinical manager and behavioral health specialist with Sanford Health. “It’s stressful being away from your family, especially for newer students.”

For college 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 in-person classes, has left many students facing additional and unexpected stress.

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

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

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Jennifer Fraik works as a nurse practitioner at Bemidji State University's Student Health and Counseling Services located in Cedar Hall.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Among just Bemidji State students in 2021, 32% scored positively on an anxiety screening and 37% screened positive for depression while 49% have at one point in their life received a mental health diagnosis.

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

“Huge adjustments can bring out bigger stressors and those stressors can release more mental health symptoms than normal,” said Amanda Gartner, a mental health counselor at Bemidji State. “We really do push for destigmatizing mental health. Everyone is welcome (to seek help), no symptom is too small.”

Signs someone might be struggling

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

“It’s so individual, every person presents with different things," Fraik explained. "Some people present with body symptoms and come to see me for a lack of appetite, stomach pain, inability to eat or sleep.”

Sometimes when a student approaches Fraik with these concerns, the conversation starts to reveal causes that might be more related to the student’s mental health.

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“That’s when I usually introduce the idea that it might be helpful to talk to one of our counselors and talk about any anxieties you might have, or whatever symptoms we uncovered on the medical side,” Fraik said.

While stress and mental health worries might express themselves physically for some people, for other people signs might take a different form like withdrawing socially or being easily irritable.

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

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Amanda Gartner is a mental health counselor at Bemidji State University's Student Health and Counseling Services located in Cedar Hall.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

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

“You’re not on a continuum as compared to everyone else. You’re on your own continuum,” Fraik said. “Our goal is to help people early when they’re starting to find out that they’re struggling a little bit with whatever it is in life.”

Seeking help

After noticing that someone is struggling, talking with them about it is the next step. Gartner explained that it’s important to validate their feelings and see if they would be willing to go to a counselor or other professional.

While these conversations might be uncomfortable at first, there are resources available on how to have them. Craft, who works with a local mobile crisis line, emphasized that anyone is welcome to call, even if it’s a parent looking for advice on how to talk about mental health with their child.

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

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Knowing the resources available locally is also helpful to bring into those conversations.

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Resources are available in the waiting area of Bemidji State University's Student Health and Counseling Services to help students with their mental and physical health.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

For college students, most campuses have some form of counseling available. There are also off-campus resources that those offices can direct students to.

As students return to school, their mental health and well-being should be a priority. It’s normal for individuals of any age in a stressful situation to have difficulties, and discussing and addressing these concerns can help keep them from growing.

“It’s OK to talk about it," Fraik said. "No matter what the topic is, it's important that we take care of it.”

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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