Understanding Mental Health Awareness Month ‘creates opportunities for conversation’

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By Shane Lynette, OMN Photographer

Best friends Morgan Berryman and Danika Mcvarish taking a relaxing walk.

Agrizha Puspita Sari, Beaver's Digest Contributor

If you haven’t already heard, May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States.

Millions of Americans face the reality of mental illness every year. According to Youth.gov, mental health month was established in 1949 to increase awareness of the importance of mental health and wellness in Americans’ lives, and to celebrate recovery from mental illness.

“It is a dedicated month in the year that focuses on increasing awareness around mental health,” said Caleb Etter, a fifth-year student studying bio health sciences at Oregon State University and an event coordinator for Dam Worth It’s OSU branch. “Social media posts, news stories and events take place more often during this month in hopes that the mental health stigma can be broken.”

Dam Worth It Company’s mission is to end the stigma around mental health at colleges and universities across the country through the power of sport, storytelling, and community creation, according to the DWI website.

Dam Worth It uses this month to advocate for OSU students, share resources and celebrate the power behind ending mental health stigma, according to Sarah Connolly, a 2022 graduate in education and president of Dam Worth It OSU.

“I believe that social support and healthy relationships are very important to our mental health,” said Tessie Webster-Henry, mental health promotion and suicide prevention coordinator at Oregon State University’s Counseling and Psychological Services. “We reduce the stigma around discussing mental health challenges, we increase connection which helps us be more resilient.”

Etter believes this month is important to so many of us as social, living individuals because a lot of people, you or someone close to you, have possibly been affected by mental health challenges.

“Awareness around this month creates opportunities for conversation,” Connolly said. “The more we discuss with our friends and community, the closer we get to ending the stigma. While discussing mental health with our society may not be easy, it is the first step to creating a world where not being okay is okay. For Dam Worth It, we hold our annual Dam Worth It week during this time. By spending five days with a presence on campus, we get to spark these life-saving conversations.”

The purpose of Mental Health Awareness Month is not only to educate and spread awareness, but also to encourage us to take care of ourselves and one another.

“Mental Health Month gives all of us a valuable opportunity to celebrate the tremendous strides this nation has made in promoting mental health and increasing the public’s knowledge that effective services and support are available,” Youth.gov states.

“I think the purpose of Mental Health Awareness month is to raise awareness of mental health among the general public,” Etter said. “It teaches people about different types of illnesses and shows people that some mental health challenges are more common. This month attempts to warm the idea of getting help and not being afraid to take the necessary steps to progress in whatever challenges are faced. Overall, I like to think that May teaches people that it’s okay to not be okay.

According to Webster-Henry, to practice and contribute during Mental Health Awareness Month, and every month, is by having a conversation about mental health, and she recommended the Seize The Awkward website for tips and resources for starting the conversation. 

“I practice good daily habits such as trying to balance my diet, drink more water, take my vitamins and be social when I can,” Etter said. “The weather is normally getting nicer, so I tend to find myself getting outside more and enjoying activities in the sun. I also am blessed to be a part of Dam Worth It where we just held a Dam Worth It week where we put ourselves out on campus to try and promote mental health awareness through various activities. The main goal is to connect with people through the conversation of mental health and making it a topic to be talked about more often.”

According to Connolly, she typically spends Mental Health Awareness Month giving herself a bit more grace. Whether it is a mistake she makes or stress she is under, she tries to take deep breaths and allow herself the opportunity to be human.

When we contribute to mental health awareness, we may recognize the benefits of caring for and helping others who are struggling with their mental health.

“People feel less shame and stigma for having a struggle,” Webster-Henry said. “Relationships are strengthened. People are more likely to reach out for mental health help.”

According to Webster-Henry, technology can impact our mental health, adding that, while research is emerging, themes include a lack of meaningful social interactions when screen time replaces connected social time, social comparison with detrimental effects due to a curated online presence where only a small part of someone’s life is portrayed and many others.

To promote our mental health and well-being, Webster-Henry recommends finding a mindful practice that works for you along with other stress-reduction activities. 

“Learning about and challenging cognitive distortions,” Webster-Henry said. “Practicing gratitude. Helping others. Cultivating your relationships. Finding your meaning and purpose and aligning your activities to match your values. Believing in the inherent good in others. Get professional help if needed.”

Etter shared that to tackle his problems, the easiest thing he can do for himself is to talk about them. He said he tries to have conversations with his close friends or family, adding that it helps him realize what he needs to do to overcome such challenges—but then it takes a whole other part of him to start taking those steps—a lot of these problems don’t change overnight, so patience is a necessity.

For Connolly, “talks with friends, honest breaks from my stressors and allowing myself to make mistakes in life have helped my well-being.”

In addition to recognizing it in ourselves, it is also important for us to be able to recognize the people around us who are struggling with their mental health.

“It can look like so many things,” Webster-Henry said. “The major effects that college students experience are depression and anxiety. A quick Google search will provide you with the signs and symptoms of these issues.”

A typical college student’s life can be difficult, including collegiate student-athletes.

“[Suicidal] thoughts and ideations are real for many people, and athletes fall under this category because of the pressure and expectations that surround their everyday life,” Etter said. “As an athlete, from a young age you’re taught to be tough, strong, flexible, etc. depending on the sport. Mental toughness is pushed as well in many aspects of the sport. But when these behaviors are taught and mixed in with the pressure of performing in front of fans, your coaches, teammates, family and others, it can be really easy to fall victim to expectations, which can hurt you significantly. We’ve lost many athletes to suicide and I firmly believe that if mental health was talked about more amongst the athlete and sports community, and we show athletes that there’s help for them and resources available, we could save lives. Athletes may not be as nervous to let their guard down to express their feelings, which ultimately could lead to more success on the field. I know that talking about my problems helped me with performance anxiety a lot during soccer.”

Connolly said that it saddens her—the thought that any person can have suicidal thoughts and ideations. Elite athletes are among those under the highest pressure at such a young age. She said that she will never be able to walk in their shoes, but she is humbled to hear their stories during the spark of these conversations. 

Balancing school and other daily commitments when we have mental health struggles can be very tough and stressful, especially when experiencing burnout—which is more likely to occur when we don’t have someone to talk to.

“Create reasonable expectations for yourself based on what you can do each day,” Webster-Henry said. “Don’t compare today with your best day, take it for what it is. Advocate for your needs by saying no to requests and activities that you can’t reasonably do or that do not align with your values and purpose. Prioritize your mental and physical health by taking good care of yourself every day: getting good sleep and rest, healthy food, social support, fun, exercise, etc. Journal how you feel if you don’t have someone you can share that with.”

Etter said he normally thinks about the end goal when he is struggling or experiencing burnout, but it is still really hard to find motivation sometimes. He always reminds himself that he has put in a lot of work to get to where he is at and he is not going to stop now. He makes short-term and long-term goals and tells himself daily what he needs to do that will allow him to check off those boxes. Especially when he doesn’t have anyone to talk to, writing those things down so you can see them is also a big help.

“Take it one day at a time. Make a to-do list and start crossing off the easiest items first,” Connolly said. “Eventually, the stress and high commitments will decrease.”

According to Webster-Henry, dimensions of health are interrelated. She encourages us to think about what we do well and do more of that. She also mentions creating small goals for improvement in an area that is interesting and exciting to you, citing the article Dimensions of wellness: Change your habits, change your life.

“I go to the gym almost every day. It’s a stress reliever for me, luckily,” Etter said. “I used to play soccer here at OSU and during that time, being out on the pitch granted me a clear mind when I was going through something. But overall, my biggest strategy for maintaining my mental and physical health is just to listen to my body. If I need rest I’ll try to get to bed earlier on a given night. Or I’ll go out for ice cream when I’m craving it. Doing the little things like that helps me immensely.”

Connolly said that her strategy is a bit different than the majority of college students. She was a student-teacher in a 7th-grade classroom and 100+ 12-year-olds are her daily medicine. For her, kids are a glimmer of happiness.

Additionally, Connolly said, “I am a very optimistic human and my joy shines when I’m close to my social circle. When I am feeling stressed, I often lean on those around me for help.”

When you have a lot on your plate, remember to feel and recognize the joyful moments.

“Try to connect your everyday activities to the big picture,” Webster-Henry suggested. “What is your purpose in life? How is what I’m doing today working toward that purpose?”

Etter pointed out that he is not always joyful, but what he always does and will never stray away from is appreciating every little thing that happens to him on a daily basis.

Supporting ourselves and others when we notice warning signs of struggle is very crucial as we learn about mental health awareness.

Webster-Henry suggested believing that reaching out for help is a show of strength both for yourself and others. Talk to a trusted friend or family member about how you are feeling. Get help to have those important conversations

Get educated on the signs of mental health distress and how to help by taking OSU’s Kognito training: 

Knowing where to turn for help in a crisis: 

  • crisis text line 741741
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
  • CAPS 24/7 mental health crisis line 541-737-2131
  • go to the emergency room
  • Call 911.

Webster-Henry also referred to The Jed Foundation for those who seek mental health professional support. 

“You have 24 hours to live in the present day,” Connolly said. “Don’t diminish a day’s worth of joy by thinking too much about the past or too far toward the future. And when presented with a fork in the road, choose the path that will lead to a happier YOU. Everything else—money, relationships, etc.—will fall right into place.”