With the new school year quickly approaching, you are probably gearing up to move back into your sorority or fraternity. As a leader of NPHC, PHC, IFC, MGC, or your respective chapter you have a lot of initiatives on your mind and goals you want to accomplish. You are probably starting to plan for recruitment and addressing drug and alcohol abuse, DEI, or sexual assault in the community, as well as tackling your social life and any other big events for the semester. With all these plans to execute, it could be easy to forget about one of the most important topics to consider for your members: their mental health.
As a leader it will be important that your and your members’ mental health is at the forefront of everything you do. It is critical that you implement initiatives that make them feel safe, heard, and supported. In the paragraphs below, I will provide the basic framework you need to be a great leader — one who values and nurtures not only their own mental health, but that of their members as well.
Mental Health Impacts Everyone
The likelihood that you know someone coping with a brain health challenge like anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts is higher than you may have guessed. According to research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four students has a diagnosable brain illness. A 2018 study conducted by the American College Health Association revealed that, in a twelve-month period:
- 55 percent of students reported feeling things were hopeless
- 88 percent of students reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do
- 84 percent reported feeling exhausted
- 42 percent reported feeling so depressed it was difficult to function
- 50 percent had become so anxious they struggled in school, making anxiety the most common student brain health problem on campus.
Frighteningly and in direct correlation with these numbers, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students.
Becoming a Mental Health Advocate
With those statistics in mind, you need to understand that everyone (including you) faces mental health challenges and could be deeply struggling with something you can’t see. Therefore, it’s crucial for you to develop basic mental health advocacy skills to become what I like to call “brain obsessed.” Being “brain obsessed” means you consider the current state of someone’s emotional well-being, as well as the factors contributing to their mental health, before engaging with them or implementing policies, rules, tasks, etc.
As a simple first step, you can ask yourself these questions:
- What is this person going through currently that might be impacting their emotional well-being?
- Are they in a healthy state to discuss what I need to talk about?
- Did they go through something recently that could be impacting how they feel?
- How can I get them the help they need?
By posing these questions before engaging with another individual, you automatically put yourself into a state of empathy, which will create a safe space for others to approach you. This style of leadership leads to more effective and compassionate results.
What Has Someone Been Through?
I once believed that brain health was fixed. In other words, an individual was either mentally well or mentally ill. It wasn’t until I experienced severe anxiety, deep depression, and thoughts of suicide that I learned our brain health sits on a continuum that fluctuates based on different factors in our lives.
As a leader and developing advocate you will want to consider the factors contributing to your and your members’ mental health. In general, there are eleven factors that can impact how someone feels. They are as follows:
- Everyday challenges like dealing with a tough professor or adjusting to an early morning class
- Stress caused by a full course load, leadership expectations, clubs, and a vibrant social life
- Lack of sleep, which has been linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety
- Low self-esteem, which can lead to unhealthy life decisions or not believing in yourself
- Environmental factors like verbal, physical, or sexual abuse
- Financial burdens because a parent was laid off or you’re a first-generation student whose parents used a good portion of their savings on your tuition
- Burnout from academic pressures, which can increase feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression
- Racial fatigue from feelings of discrimination
- Traumatic life events like the death of a loved one, divorce, or a break-up
- Transitions like moving into a house and being away from your family
- Mental health disorders like anxiety, major depressive disorder, OCD, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia
All of these factors plus many more will impact you and your members’ mental health. Considering what someone has been through and their risk factors will help you identify when a member is potentially experiencing anxiety, depression, or thoughts of suicide.
Know the Signs of Anxiety and Depression
Recognizing when a member could be struggling with anxiety or depression is critical to the recovery process because it allows for early intervention. With this in mind, you want to keep an eye out for a few typical signs that someone is struggling with their mental health.
Withdrawal from others: One of the most typical behaviors depressed people exhibit is isolation. For many reasons, when someone is depressed they just don’t want to be around people or have to talk to them. If you notice a brother or sister spending all of their time in their room, not responding to any of your texts, or regularly flaking on social plans, this could be a sign that they are dealing with anxiety or depression.
Weight loss or gain: Anxiety and depression can cause an individual to have absolutely no appetite at all, or it could become a coping mechanism to feel better. I lost about fifteen pounds at the peak of my depression because I couldn’t eat. If you notice one of your sister’s or brother’s weight has fluctuated significantly, this could be a sign that they are struggling and need to seek help.
Sleeping too much or too little: For some people, feeling depressed causes them to sleep all day. They just want to escape from what they’re feeling, so they sleep. For others, they can’t sleep at all. If one of your sisters or brothers is spending their entire day in bed sleeping (11, 12, 13, 14 hours a day) on a regular basis, this could be a sign they are experiencing depression or anxiety. The same is true if they are sleeping very little but appear exhausted and fatigued.
Fatigue: Anxious and depressed individuals feel tired all the time. Normally, they wake up with their brains in a fog. When I was depressed and anxious, I felt perpetually tired and therefore didn’t have the energy to do much of anything. If you notice a sister or brother looks tired all the time or their school work/grades are declining, this is a huge indicator that they’re struggling. Rather than judging them for “being lazy,” you need to help them get the support they need.
Once you have identified a brother or sister who is struggling, it is important that you are nonjudgmental and supportive while encouraging help-seeking behavior.
Have a Plan to Support Yourself and Your Members
Having a mental health plan in place to start the year will improve the likelihood that you take good care of yourself and your members.
To begin, you and your leadership team should consider putting together a list of mental health resources that are available on campus and then passing these out at chapter meetings and other events to boost awareness. Most universities have a Counseling and Psychological Services Center, which provides individual and group therapy, as well as additional resources for no or low cost. They typically have documentation as well, which you can get from their office and pass out.
Here is a list of additional resources:
- The Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- The Crisis Text Line: text HOME to 741741
- The NAMI Helpline: 1-800-950-6264
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357
- The LGBT National Help Center Hotline: 1-888-843-4564
- The National Alliance for Hispanic Health
- Therapy for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
Understand what other self-help strategies are available to you and your members to improve your mental health. There are many books out there on anxiety and depression like:
- Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple: 10 Strategies for Managing Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Panic, and Worry by Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D.
- Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks by Barry McDonagh
- 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-help That Actually Works by Dan Harris
- You’re Not Alone: The Only Book You’ll Ever Need to Overcome Anxiety and Depression by Zach Westerbeck
Lastly, consider bringing in a mental health expert or speaker who can explain the fundamentals of mental health to your community. Typically, these educators will aim to destigmatize and normalize mental health challenges, teach support strategies, and discuss the best practices to maintain mental wellness.
2020 and 2021 have been psychologically tough on every college student. By following this simple framework, you have the opportunity to spread awareness and improve the mental health of both yourself and the members you represent.