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Mental Health Matters

Mental Health Matters
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May was Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness and reduce stigma surrounding mental health issues. This month-long observance is dedicated to increasing public knowledge about mental health and encouraging individuals to seek help when needed.

Pandemics, War, Climate Change, and Social Media have influenced the mental health of many people during these abnormal last few years. Psychological distress for many has become an important topic of discussion that requires a change in narrative to tell the story of a generation that is more anxious and demotivated, yet also more aware and liberated from stereotypes.
This is the generation of the new normal, unafraid to embrace complexity, show vulnerability, and assert their right to well-being.

In this article, we’ll explore the importance of Mental Health Awareness, the impact of the “new normal” on mental health, and ways you can support those struggling with mental illness. Whether you’re dealing with your own mental health challenges or want to be an ally to someone who is, this article looks to provide valuable insights and resources to help you navigate the complex world of mental health.

Being a University Student: Misperceptions and Overcommitment

According to data from the Italian Report on equitable and sustainable well-being (Bes), younger people’s mental health has been declining, particularly among university students. Studies conducted in Australia in 2010 (Psychological distress in university students: A comparison with general population data, H. Stallman), and in Italy in 2018 (Report on equitable and sustainable well-being) revealed that students suffer from higher levels of mental distress compared to their non-university peers.

The soaring increase in social media is one of the main factors that most impacts a university student’s performance and expectations—and thus mental health. Toxic narratives of excellent university paths, competition, and constant comparison with others exacerbate misperception of one’s path of study and life. In a performance-based society, it is necessary to distinguish what is the effort that can lead to merit from the normalization of “exceptional” paths. This is what universities and the media should do: promote excellence, while never forgetting to also protect the vulnerabilities and individual frailties of young people.

An additional factor to consider is overcommitment, i.e., excessive commitment to studies, which leads to burn out and is a major cause in the development of psychological distress. The study Mental Health Among University Students highlighted the need to disconnect from academic duties outside course hours and to prioritize mental health. Despite student mental health being a topic of public concern, it is still challenging to find data which comprehensively analyzes the issue and tracks its various aspects affecting the most vulnerable.

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The Unwelcoming Legacy of the Pandemic

The pandemic has left behind an unwelcome legacy of physical and emotional effects, according to experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the English National Health System (NHS). Traumatic events, dangerous situations, and restrictions on freedoms can result in physiological and emotional reactions such as sadness, anger, worry, and frustration. These emotions can manifest in difficulty sleeping, concentrating, and decision-making, which for some, had developed into persistent mental health issues that cannot be ignored.

The pandemic has also taught us to pay closer attention to the indirect signals our bodies and minds send us. It’s crucial to distinguish serious conditions from anxiety and physiological stress, which serve as a wake-up call, prompting us to take action to identify and rectify issues in our lives.

Another unwelcome legacy of Covid-19 was becoming familiar with burnout—a condition of emotional exhaustion from work (and beyond) that has only a few years ago been officially recognized by the World Health Organization. Burnout first affected health care professionals, who at the beginning of the pandemic underwent grueling shifts, expending all their physical and emotional resources. The condition then spread to teachers and other professions that were in constant contact with the public. Signs of burnout can be insomnia, headaches, stomach aches, eating disorders, and an attitude that can turn from depressed to aggressive due to a loss of control over one’s reactions. Recognizing and coping with burnout by seeking help from doctors are the first steps to begin a course of therapy to avoid worsening the condition and recover from it.

How Climate Change is Affecting Mental Health

Climate change is having a profound impact on mental health, with rising temperatures, air pollutants, and noise pollution contributing to increased levels of anxiety and depression, particularly among the most vulnerable individuals. This has led to the emergence of new forms of distress such as solastalgia, a discomfort caused by the perception of environmental change.

Aside from the damage caused by pollution, which has been confirmed by numerous studies, a sense of malaise related to the current state of the planet is also affecting mental health. The aforementioned condition is especially prevalent among young people and is linked to the feeling of having lost something precious, as well as to a sense of emptiness and loss of motivation caused by climate change.

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Although pollution is commonly associated with physical ailments such as respiratory or cardiovascular diseases, scientists have also noted its effects on mental health. Depression, for example, is not solely a psychological disorder, but also has many physical stimulants.

The causes of these mental health issues are difficult to pinpoint, but researchers believe that a combination of the inflammatory effects of ozone and other problems caused by pollution may be to blame. For example, increased temperature changes metabolism, and various studies confirm that temperatures that generate discomfort decrease concentration and cognitive performance in addition to making us more irritable.

Moreover, there are new emerging links between pollution and neurodevelopmental disorders, as well as increased cases of Alzheimer’s disease. There are also other reasons for concern, related to the harms of noise pollution: research published in the International Review of Psychiatry reveals that living in noisy areas, for example near an airport or a busy road, alters sleep-wake rhythms, particularly making young people more vulnerable and bringing out subthreshold disorders. 

What Can We Do to Raise Awareness For Mental Health?

These last few not-so-normal years have somewhat normalized discussions around psychological care and well-being, empowering younger generations to talk more openly about their struggles. 

While these new generations are not necessarily more fragile or problematic than the past ones, they are more sensitive and aware of their mental health. However, despite the progress made, there is still a need to prioritize mental health concerns and address the collective indifference towards it. One way to do this is by raising awareness through community outreach and events during Mental Health Awareness Month.

National organizations like Mental Health America (MHA), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and the Italian Centro di Salute Mentale (CSM) host events and fundraisers to reduce stigma and encourage people to seek help when needed. To support mental health awareness, it is important to lend an ear, or a shoulder to cry on, to friends or loved ones who may be struggling and encourage them to seek help. Additionally, being open about personal challenges without being afraid to reach out for help, or telling your friends and loved ones, and speaking out on social media can also help normalize discussions about mental health. It is also important to pay attention to language and avoid using stigmatizing words that reinforce negative stereotypes. By educating ourselves and learning more about mental health by reading books or listening to podcasts, we can better support ourselves and others.

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Now, it is crucial to prioritize the mental health concerns of university students to prevent further harm and to address these issues to overcome the social apathy surrounding mental health, considering the environmental emergency and the need for nationwide action to address the malaise of the youngest. To educate ourselves on the realities of living with mental health issues, to confront any feeling of stigma or judgment we may have, and to support those in our life can help spreading the message that mental health matters.

Five Books to Guide One’s Mental Health Journey
• “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk 
• “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” by Andrew Solomon 
• “The Lonely Stories: 22 Celebrated Writers on the Joys & Struggles of Being Alone” by Natalie Eve Garrett 
• “Reasons to Stay Alive” by Matt Haig 
• “It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle” by Mark Wolynn 
Author profile

Law student. Easily fascinated by faces & places and their own unique stories. A very passionate person who still believes in love, emotions & destiny. Keen on Contemporary Arts and cultural phenomena that shape our everyday life.

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