‘You don’t have to struggle’: UNI mental health resources

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses mental illness and suicide.

By the end of Becca McDowell’s senior year of high school, nine students had died by suicide. Being surrounded by such tragedy was a difficult experience for McDowell, who’s experienced her own mental health struggles.

“That had a huge impact,” she said. “All of us, by the time we graduated, were feeling sick of how the mental health system is treating everybody.”

Mental health issues can follow students from high school to college, or they can manifest for the first time during higher education. Fortunately, there are many resources available on campus at UNI to help students address these issues.

And McDowell, now a junior social work major at UNI, is helping to change attitudes about mental illness on campus. As president of UNI’s campus chapter of To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) — a national organization dedicated to ending depression, suicide, self-harm and addiction — McDowell helps educate the campus community about mental health issues and helps provide support for students living with mental illness.

A student receives counseling at the University of Northern Iowa.

The organization holds weekly meetings where members can find information and resources on mental health. The support provided by the group at one of the first meetings McDowell attended made a big impact. “At the end, I remember one of the executive board members saying, ‘All of you matter and I love all of you even if I just met you. Please come talk to me if you ever have any problems,’” she said. “It just felt nice to hear that, especially as a freshman because you’re in some place completely new.”

According to Jennifer Schneiderman, the interim director of UNI’s Counseling Center, that kind of community building is a vital part of dealing with mental illness. “Depression and a lot of other illnesses grow in isolation,” she said. “We encourage people to connect … because connection often helps.”

The Counseling Center is another resource available to UNI students who need help. The center offers free counseling services to UNI students — and they’re doing their part to help students make connections. In addition to individual counseling, the Counseling Center has recently launched a weekly anxiety support group and a four-week “Mindfulness Mondays” workshop to help students deal with stress and build community with other students who share their experiences. This not only helps students manage their issues, but can also help them realize they’re not alone in their struggles.

That was true for McDowell’s experience in TWLOHA.  “It was just refreshing to hear that other people had struggles; that you’re not alone, even if it feels like it,” said McDowell. “You’re sitting in a group of about fifteen other people who have the same thing, so obviously it’s not that abnormal.”

Far from being abnormal, experiencing mental health issues in college is common — and anxiety in particular is especially prevalent, according to Schneiderman. “We see sometimes between 18 and 24 being the time some of the more serious mental illnesses start to emerge,” she said. “We’ve certainly seen a rise in anxiety in the last few years. I think it’s a combination of the world we’re living in today. There’s a lot of things to be anxious about.”

Unfortunately, in Iowa, suicide among young adults is also common — for Iowans ages 15-24, suicide is the second-leading cause of death, and between 1999 and 2016, the suicide rate in Iowa increased by more than 36 percent, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. And according to the National Association for Mental Illness, 90 percent of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness.

These numbers are concerning, but also serve as a reminder that struggling with mental health issues is nothing to be ashamed about. For many, understanding that can be the first step to getting help. “I think that’s what a lot of us love about our jobs, is being able to show people that it’s not some character flaw or personality defect,” said Schneiderman. “This is actually an illness that there’s treatment for and we know what to do about it.”

For McDowell, “doing something about it” means taking time for self care — she enjoys playing with her dog and baking cookies to get her mind off stressors — and continuing her advocacy on-campus and beyond — in addition to serving as president of TWLOHA, McDowell also volunteers for the Crisis Text Line, which offers free 24/7 crisis counseling. She also sees a therapist off-campus to manage her own mental health, though she’s happy to refer other students to UNI’s on-campus counseling services.

What’s important to McDowell is that students who are struggling reach out to someone — whether it’s the UNI counseling center, someone from TWLOHA, a crisis hotline, an off-campus counseling service, a family member or close friend. “Reach out to anybody and tell them even just a little glimpse of what’s going on,” she said. “Because if you don’t reach out, there could be really bad consequences, but if you do reach out, things are more than likely going to get a little bit better.”

Helping students get better is one of the reasons the counseling center exists. However, Schneiderman cautions people against seeking out counseling as a quick fix. “I would never want it to look like we do these magic things and people get better and its wonderful,” she said.  “The person has to do all the work themselves. But counselors give them the information they need to do the work they need to do.”

That work could include things like reading literature about mental illness and coping strategies, keeping a thought or mood log, or writing in a journal. “That way, we can identify patterns and look at what triggers might be,” Schneiderman said.

McDowell has become a pro at doing this kind of work and echoes Schneiderman’s sentiment. “It’s not just going to therapy or taking medication. It’s a process and usually it’s a very long process,” she said. “I’ve been going through six years of treatment and I’m still not at 100 percent.”

While this might sound discouraging, for McDowell, her experience in therapy has been worth it because it’s helped her learn coping skills, not because it’s been a miracle cure for mental illness. “You’re going to have bad days. Everybody has bad days,” she said. “It’s how you spring back from it. That’s the progress you’re going to make.”

According to Schneiderman, helping students gain the skills and insight to manage difficult emotions is ultimately why the counseling center exists. “Knowledge is power,” she said. “If you understand what’s happening with you and why, then you can do something about it. You don’t have to struggle.”

That’s another way McDowell was impacted by her experiences in high school. While it was sad that so many students succumbed to their struggles with mental illness, losing someone to suicide is a unique struggle in itself — and seeing people learn to cope with their loss served as an inspiration and a reminder that people can work through even the most unfathomable tragedies.

“Seeing people that were close to them show up to school and work through it on their own gave me the strength,” said McDowell. “If they can work through that, I can get through this.”

For more information about counseling, psychiatry and other mental health resources at UNI, visit https://mentalhealth.uni.edu/ or call the Student Health Clinic at 319-273-2009.

If you’re experiencing a crisis...

  • In case of immediate danger, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital emergency room.

  • For urgent situations outside of office hours, call the Counseling Center at 273-2676 and press 2 to speak to a crisis counselor.

  • Statewide Crisis Line 1-800-332-4224
    *The Foundation 2 Crisis Line is Certified by the American Association of Suicidology.

  • National Suicide Hotline 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)

To Write Love On Her Arms meets every Tuesday from 6-7 p.m. Meeting locations are sent out via email. To be added to the mailing list, email northerniowatwloha@gmail.com.