Steps to Take When You're Having a Mental Health Crisis

By Lorena Roberts on February 24, 2019

We all hit that point in the semester where everything seems to be due at once – group projects, papers, quizzes, exams, etc. Around Valentine’s Day, we all start feeling like we’re drowning in too much work. Especially if you’re a first year college student, this point in the semester can really test your tenacity, time management, and responsibility. You start learning that going out on Friday and Saturday nights probably isn’t the best decision, sleeping in past noon on the weekends is only helpful if it’s catching you up on the sleep you missed, not because you’re avoiding doing your homework, and your laundry simply cannot go without being done at least every other week (but let’s be real, Sundays are for laundering your sheets and clothes).

As you start to feel like you’re completely drowning in school work, personal crises, and remembering to take a shower every couple of days, it’s important to know the steps you should take if you start feeling like you’re amidst a mental health crisis. Many college students don’t know about the resources that exist on their campus, the staff members that are there to support you, and the organizations that are focused on making sure you have what you need to be a successful student at your university.

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Experiencing your first mental health crisis is scary. In fact, you probably don’t even know that’s what’s happening to you until you’re knee-deep in anxiety, panic, and night sweats. Whether it’s the exam in your hardest class, your first serious heartbreak, or the homesickness that’s finally setting in, a mental health crisis can (and does) happen to anyone. It’s unlikely that you haven’t encountered someone on campus yet who hasn’t experienced some sort of mental health crisis – honestly, it’s so much more common than you think!

Whether you’re the one going through a mental health crisis, or you’re trying to help out a friend who might be having a crisis of their own, there are several signs that will help you recognize what a mental health crisis looks like. If you (or a friend) is showing these signs, there’s a chance that a mental health crisis is happening:

  • Sleeping too much (or not enough)
  • Gaining weight quickly (or losing it quickly)
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Withdrawing from normal activities, especially social situations

If you have come to the conclusion that you’re in the middle of a mental health crisis, you might be struggling with what you should do about it. How do you pull yourself out of the dark place in which you seem to be? How do you fight the thoughts that are leaking into your brain involuntarily? How do you continue to go to class, do your laundry, eat all the right things, keep your friendships healthy, and remember to call your parents often enough to keep them from worrying?

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There are standard steps you should take if you find yourself in the middle of a mental health crisis. Even if you may not be amidst one right now, there’s a decent possibility that you’ll find yourself in this position at some point during college. It’s important that you know how to handle a mental health crisis, so here are some steps you can take to get yourself back on the right path:

1. Evaluate the situation

Before you rush into deciding how you’re going to handle this, stop and evaluate your current situation. What’s making you feel this way? Why are you panicking? Does it have to do with your academics, personal life, or something else? Are you struggling financially and you don’t know what to do? Did your serious college boyfriend just dump you and it feels like your life is over? Or have you lost all motivation for being in school at all? (This happens, and it’s serious!)

Before you start taking steps towards getting your life back together, one of the most important things you can do for yourself is evaluate why you’re in the place that you’re currently in. Reflect on what happened to get you here. Sometimes this requires the help of another person, which is why I personally recommend having someone to talk to during this time in your life. While you might choose for that to be a friend or a parent, some people prefer to talk to a therapist (a third-party who can really listen to you without fearing “hurting your feelings”).

2. Reach out to someone.

As a continuation of evaluating the situation that you’re in, it’s also important that you reach out to someone you trust to help you through this time in your life. You don’t have to do this alone. In fact, most people that you know would prefer you not go through this by yourself. Most friends and family members will be more than willing to help get you through the tough times. That’s simply what you do when you love and care about someone.

3. Look for resources.

Whether it’s the counseling center on your campus or a book that you heard about, getting your hands on mental health crisis resources can be the difference between surviving this without much bruising and taking half a semester to get through it. Some friends of mine have taken advantage of the free counseling center on campus — they benefitted from the intake process; it actually helped them evaluate their situation and got them “back on their feet” in terms of finding out what they need to make their situation better.

4. Take care of yourself.

One of the easiest things to look out for during a mental health crisis is how you’re taking care of yourselfMany college students think they can make it through an entire semester on pizza from the dining hall, popcorn in the middle of the night, and procrastinating on going to the gym. But one of the most important things you can do for yourself throughout college is to make sure you’re taking care of yourself — good care of yourself.

This is one of the only times in your life where you’ll get to have the best of both worlds: being in school and learning what you’re passionate about, as well as being around your friends 24/7 when no one has to attend their 9-5 job. Dedicate time to taking care of yourself — especially when it comes to what you’re eating, how much time you’re spending in the gym/being active, and making sure the relationships you have with people aren’t toxic.

5. Identify what kind of mental health issue you’re struggling with.

Are you anxious? Depressed? Are you struggling with an eating disorder? No matter what mental health issue you’re dealing with, it’s an important one, and it won’t be discounted. College students all over the country are struggling with mental health. In fact, it’s less stigmatized than it used to be. Because we’re getting better about talking about the issues, there are more resources available to students.

Once you identify the mental health struggle that you’re having (anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, etc), the world of resources will truly be opened. You’ll start to understand what you can do to cope with what you’re going through.

6. Seek a professional if it’s warranted.

If you’re going through something that’s just too tough for you to handle on your own, please seek help. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t feel like you’re lesser of a person. You aren’t weak if you seek treatment, whether it’s in the form of therapy, medication or both. You might just need to surround yourself with happier, healthier people. Or maybe you need to re-evaluate what you’re majoring in. Or maybe you need to take a semester off and move back home. Whatever you need, get it for yourself. After all, life is not a dress rehearsal.

7. Monitor your symptoms.

Some people turn to keeping track of their symptoms in a journal or planner. Whether it’s “I felt anxious today” or “slept 5 hours,” this can be really helpful when it’s time to think about your “treatment plan.” If you see a therapist, they’re going to ask you how debilitating your anxiety is, or what your sleeping habits are like. It will be incredibly helpful if you’re one step ahead of the game and you have it all laid out.

8. Keep doing what makes you feel better.

I remember telling my friends that I spent entire days laying in bed and watching Netflix. But that’s what helped me at the time, and that’s what I needed to do for myself. It didn’t matter what anyone told me, having down-time to myself, to enjoy my favorite shows, is what helped me get through some of the toughest seasonal depression.

This isn’t to say that I want you to mole-up into a hibernating slumber. It is to say, however, that you should ultimately do what makes you feel better, what makes you more successful, what helps get you through the day. If you need to skip your Wednesday afternoon class to read your favorite book or take a nap, do it. You have to take care of yourself. Your mental health is so much more important than your attendance grade.

9. Suicide prevention.

If, at any time, you feel yourself slipping into a suicidal state, it is absolutely imperative that you tell someone. Though suicidal thoughts are on a spectrum, when it comes to making a plan and following through, you are in the crisis zone. You need help. You need someone to talk you down, to give you all the reasons for which there is to live. Sometimes you need someone to sit with you and go through all the things you should be thankful for in order to get you back up off the floor and in the groove of things together.

10. You are not alone.

Knowing you’re not alone in this battle is imperative. College students across the country are battling a variety of mental health issues. Your friends, your peers, your coworkers, your professors, your roommate, your hall mates, and even the people you feel that you don’t know at all are all struggling with one thing or another. Whether it’s just mild anxiety that they seem to have under control at the moment or debilitating depression that keeps them from getting out of bed in the morning, mental health issues are real. Don’t ever let your mind tell you that you are weak, that you can’t handle real life, or that you’re less worthy than others. Mental health is something everyone struggles with, and going through a mental health crisis is sometimes just part of what life likes to throw at us.

Going through a mental health crisis isn’t fun. There are lots of curveballs, lots of emotions, and lots of actions you have to deal with. You’ll wonder whether you should reach out to someone or whether you should just do it yourself. You’ll wonder who you can trust, who will have good advice for you, and who will truly be able to understand what you’re going through. You’ll need help navigating how to continue to attend your classes, get your assignments done, and keep yourself healthy. You’ll need a partner to check in on you every few hours and make sure that you’re making it through. And if, at any time, you start to have suicidal thoughts, it’s absolutely imperative that you reach out to someone as soon as possible.

Lorena graduated from The University of Tennessee in Knoxville last December with a BA in Honors Psychology. After some serious soul-searching, she's decided to pursue a Master's in teaching in order to teach middle school math! In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her Whippet mix, Gio, at the dog park and binge watching Netflix with endless cups of Hot Cocoa.

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