Amongst college students, mental illness is much more pervasive than we may realize and represents one of the most important health problems that our generation faces.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), more than one fifth of young adults are diagnosed with at least one mental illness (22%), which is higher than all other age groups (adults aged 26-49 years: 21% and adults aged 50 years or more: 14%).That means that whether or not you suffer from one yourself, chances are high that someone close to you does. Anxiety disorders, major depression, and substance use are among the most widespread disorders. While severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, are less common, they have an onset during college-age and have a devastating impact on daily functioning.

Almost all forms of mental illness impact people’s academic, professional, social, and personal lives. These mental disorders are a major public health problem – suicide is the third leading cause of death among young adultsand more than a third of students with mental health conditions who are served by special education drop out, which is the highest dropout rate of any disability group. This means that it is easier to complete college (because of the accommodations offered) if you are deaf, blind, or paraplegic than if you have depression or anxiety! Just as colleges and public health authorities promote vaccinations to prevent health epidemics, e.g. mumps, meningitis, etc., why can’t we also focus on psychological immunization for the vulnerable young adult population?

What these facts and statistics indicate is that college students are particularly an at-risk group, and public education campaigns need to highlight the importance for taking care of one’s mental health just as we take care of our physical health. Similar to how we recognize the importance of staying in good physical shape by going to the gym, we need to attend to our mental health needs as well.

So, why is it so important that mental health is no longer considered a taboo topic and the stigma is eliminated? Because it is a pervasive illness that affects everyone directly or indirectly, and the costs of illness are so great that we must initiate conversations and start to take action. I urge you to talk to your friends and family at dinner and have these serious conversations about the importance of mental health. The conversation is the starting point for addressing this pervasive health problem, and the silence around this topic is deadly. People who suffer don’t think they can talk to their peers, when in fact reaching out may be one of the things that can help them – most likely, his/her peers are suffering from similar problems and talking will make everyone feel less alone. Would this silence be true for someone if they were diagnosed with allergies, diabetes, or cancer? Probably not. As they should, their communities would rally around them and support them as best they could. Talking about mental illness is the first step in de-stigmatizing the issues that are all around us, which in turn will help provide the support that they need. Let’s help ourselves and our communities, and support each other through all sufferings, not just physical ones.

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