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Mental health a concern for even the happiest students at Rice

By Allen Liao     8/20/11 7:00pm


Welcome to Rice ... the university with the "happiest students" and the "best quality of life." For three years in a row, Rice has been ranked no. 1 by the Princeton Review for "Best Quality of Life," and for three years in a row, I've been fortunate enough to experience firsthand the beautiful campus, endless opportunities and tight-knit community that merit Rice its no. 1 spot. For good reason, the majority of students here are madly, deeply, wildly, ecstatically happy, in love with Rice.

But not everyone feels that way. Not everyone has that same giddy, head-over-heels experience of true love. Perhaps you, like myself and many others before you, felt a little underwhelmed by O-Week — what was supposed to be the "best week of your life." And instead of feeling comfortably settled in and ready to tackle the school year, perhaps you're feeling slightly apprehensive, anxious, or just plain ambivalent. Well, you're not alone. Yes, it might seem like everyone around you is all happy and hunky-dory, but you'd be surprised at just how many people aren't. Sadly, no one ever talks about it. Amid the sea of smiling faces, it's hard to talk about any problems you might be having or contrary emotions you might be feeling. But the truth is, underneath the surface, we're all struggling to stay afloat.

I'll be frank. College is rough. The week of fun and games is over, and it's time to buckle down and worry about classes and grades, getting involved, building up that résumé, deciding on your future, making friends, finding your niche, dealing with roommates and relationships, missing family and home. Somewhere in there, we forget about the foundation that keeps us from falling apart — our health.

We lose sight of getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising, taking breaks. Burning the candle at both ends, we're prone to stress and sickness, yet we keep churning on, often hesitating to seek help until we fall grievously sick. Now, when I say "sick," I'm not only referring to the common cold or flu — our physical health. I'm also referring to the just-as-common depression or anxiety disorders — our mental health. We might think about seeking help and going to the doctor if we develop persistent symptoms of a cough, sniffle, or fever, but why on earth don't we think about seeking help when we develop persistent symptoms of exhaustion, irritability, loss of interest or motivation, trouble concentrating or functioning, changes in sleep or appetite, feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or worthlessness — the most common and characteristic indicators of clinical depression? Just as a small cough or headache might develop into something a lot more serious, these small changes in thoughts and behavior can develop into more serious and debilitating mental disorders.

Sure, it's easy to brush off such problems: "Oh, I'm just tired. Just stressed. Not feeling well. A lot on my mind." Of course, it's perfectly normal to be feeling this way at times, but when it develops into a disabling, persistent problem, it might be a sign of depression. The fact is depression and other mental illnesses are real medical conditions. They are as real, as in need of attention, and as treatable as other physical illnesses. You'd be surprised at how many of our brightest, most successful peers are affected by depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, or other related conditions. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 20 percent of our 18-24 age group (that's 1 in 4 people!) suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. But over two-thirds don't seek help.

So what can you do? Recognize the symptoms, both in yourself and in others. Get help when it's needed. Talk it out, the good and the bad. Listen and look out for your friends. Don't perpetuate this culture of false positivity at Rice, this peer pressure to be happy. Don't hide behind a fake smile. Be honest to yourself and to others. I'm not saying that you should pour out all your issues to everyone you meet. I'm saying that everyone encounters problems with mental health and if we all stopped hiding and were more honest and open with ourselves and with others, we can create a campus free from stigma, where no one is left behind.

The truly great thing about Rice is its incredibly supportive community. From the minute you walk onto Rice campus, you have upperclassmen advisors, peer academic and health advisors, the masters, RAs, the Counseling Center, the Wellness Center, and many other campus groups to help you navigate your way through freshman year. The professors are understanding, the administration actually cares about its students, and the students watch out for one another. Indeed, it's this unique culture that makes us the "happiest students" with the "best quality of life." Let's make sure we live up to this title, by being frank about our mental health and other concerns, by taking care of ourselves, and by seeking out all of the campus resources that are available, all of the supportive people and peers around us.

If the issue of mental health is important to you, if you want to help combat this silent epidemic, check out Active Minds. We're a brand new student organization on campus dedicated to speaking up, educating and raising awareness about mental health issues and mental disorders. Let's change the conversation about mental health at Rice.

Allen Liao is a a McMurtry College senior.

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