Why everyone should prioritize mental health, work to end the stigma

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Content warning: anxiety, depression and suicide

According to a mental health survey conducted in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 62.9% of those ages 18 to 24 reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. Of the survey’s 5,400 respondents, about 11% reported seriously considering suicide — and of those respondents, an alarming 25.5% were young adults.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has caused an increase in the number of individuals experiencing anxiety and depression. Before I began my career as a mental health speaker and coach, I was someone who found himself standing on a literal and figurative ledge.

Mental health challenges have become one of the biggest threats to a college student’s health and success. But despite this common thread, we often do not feel comfortable speaking publicly about mental health, or else feel ashamed to seek help. The social stigma against mental health hangs over us.

In the past year, reports found that only 41% of individuals struggling with a mental health issue received the professional health care they needed.

But we have the power to curb the tide of this mental health crisis.

Education is the first step. Begin by learning about the fundamentals of mental health — signs and symptoms of anxiety, depression and suicide, destigmatization and best practices to optimize brain health — and share this knowledge with your family, peers and school faculty. Promote self-help strategies, such as reading mental health books and articles, meditating, following relaxation techniques and using personal experiences to encourage recovery from symptoms of anxiety and depression.

We all must understand that feelings of anxiety and depression are not a choice. Often, they require a medical diagnosis, in the same way you might need glasses for blurred vision. When you are struggling with a physical ailment, you go to the doctor, receive a diagnosis and begin a treatment plan to recover. Why would the process be any different when it comes to your mental health? There are health care professionals whose entire careers are dedicated to improving your brain health.

Feeling anxious or depressed does not make you lazy, attention-seeking, weak or incapable of living a productive life. Rather, these emotions are a response triggered by genetics, daily stress and traumatic events.

Your brain health is a continuum, just like your physical health is. Sometimes, you are able to live a happy, balanced life. Other times, you might find it increasingly difficult to balance your emotions.

For instance, being isolated from family and friends while at UC Berkeley because of shelter-in-place orders may have caused you to feel lonely and stressed. The sense of loss from not having a normal semester in person with peers might have caused frustration that makes you fatigued all the time. Or maybe the uncertainty about the safety of you and your loved ones has caused you to feel hopeless.

Before long, you can find yourself living under a permanent haze of anxiety. It’s an unsustainable feeling that can lead you into a state of depression. This does not make you weak; it makes you human.

The promotion of help-seeking behavior and self-help strategies as a means to recovery begins with you. If you are struggling with crippling depression like I once did, it can feel like the hardest thing in the world to even get out of bed. If you are currently in that deep state of depression, it’s important to know it’s OK not to be OK. Try to talk with a trusted friend or family member and tell them you are struggling and need assistance scheduling an appointment with a psychologist.

Consider that, if you are able to do so, paying for therapy or counseling is an investment in your health and success academically, socially and emotionally. Athletes spend money on rehab for their bodies because they know it might help them perform better at their sports. The same can be true for your brain.

Start by scheduling a consultation with the UC Berkeley Tang Center’s Counseling and Psychological Services. All registered UC Berkeley students — at both the undergraduate and graduate levels — can receive services there, regardless of what insurance coverage they have. If money is a challenge, utilize community health care centers in your area. They will provide therapy free of charge regardless of whether or not you have insurance.

If you live in an area that doesn’t provide sufficient mental health care, consider using virtual therapy options such as Talkspace, which uses HIPAA-compliant video conferencing and helps to remove the barrier of proximity to quality care. Always make sure to ask if the mental health professional you’re seeing can provide care on a sliding scale. This means charging less for therapy sessions based on your current financial needs.

Finally, as you begin to see improvements in your brain health, share your story if you are comfortable doing so. Tell others about your experiences with anxiety and depression. Explain how it made you feel, how it affected your life and how you were able to face it with therapy to find recovery.

Stories of hope and recovery make others feel less afraid. They help remove the societal stigma around mental health and the feelings of guilt and shame that accompany it. These stories also empower others to see brain health management as a necessary part of life.

Your story matters, and its ripple effects are endless.

Please contact the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 if you are feeling suicidal and looking for immediate assistance.

Zach Westerbeck is a mental health public speaker, college success coach and certified Mental Health First Aid professional. He wrote “You’re Not Alone,” a book that outlines a step-by-step process to overcome feelings of anxiety and depression.