Denison professors offer takes on college students’ mental health

Prof. Doug Swift

What are some of your thoughts on mental health?

Sadly, mental health challenges are increasing in America.  This is occurring in all socio-economic groups, and in more and younger children.  Regionally, Children’s Hospital in Columbus is in the process of doubling its psychiatric unit.  Reports of suicide are increasing across the board, including in children, and younger and younger children are taking their lives.  We should be alarmed, and we should be looking at everything as a possible factor–from school culture, to exposure to digital devices, to alienation from nature, to consuming processed diets, to much more.  We must think holistically.

What advice would you offer Denison students in terms of keeping a positive mindset?

Trust the wisdom of your inner process; it is so much more important than external factors and rewards. Ask for help when you need help.

Is mental health a big part of your life? How so?

First, I try to spend my time doing things I love, and I’ve largely succeeded in that goal.  Still, between teaching, my professional work, and working hard to function in a healthy way within my family, I reach points of stress and discord.  I try to recognize when that is happening as soon as possible, and when it is I schedule long walks in the woods, naps, and an amazing Buddhist meditation called Tonglen.

Dr. Ayana Hinton

What are some of your thoughts on mental health?

I think it is important to bear in mind a distinction between mental stress, emotional stress and mental health disorder.  I believe everyone experiences mental stress and emotional stress multiple times in their lives (and probably multiple times in a week depending on the current circumstances of their life). However, not everyone will experience a mental health disorder, although it is definitely common. I think the distinction is important because for mental and emotional stress I think there are things an individual can do to help lower their level of stress whereas if you are experiencing a mental health issue you almost always need some type of professional help to deal with it in a healthy way.  I think it is important for us to recognize that doing the work to keep ourselves in as healthy a mental state as we can be is very important.

Denison has resources to help students deal with mental and emotional stress and mental health issues. However, I think it is important for students to recognize that they have control over their own mental and emotional stress levels. Often external factors are the stressors, but how we choose to deal with them is in our control. So, if I’m stressed because I have 24 papers to grade and return to students before their next assignment is due so that they can have the feedback, I can avoid being completely stressed out about it by starting to grade the papers early so that I don’t leave it to the last minute. Or, if I’ve had a bad day in class where I feel I was very disorganized and unclear and I’m doubting my abilities (which happened several times when I first started teaching), I can choose to not spiral downward with my negative thoughts and instead focus on how to change what I did in preparation for the class so that the next lecture goes better. Pulling yourself out of a downward spiral can be hard-work so you really have to make an effort to do so. And again, if the issue goes beyond stress to a deeper mental health issue, you probably won’t be able to pull yourself out of it without seeking help.

What advice would you offer Denison students in terms of keeping a positive mindset?

As I said above, it is important not to give in to self-doubt and negative thoughts.  They never lead to a positive place because they can cause a sense of helplessness and paralysis.  Keep believing in yourself. Don’t believe you can do everything because no one can. I want to repeat that, no one can do everything. However, you should believe that you can do a particular task you have appointed for yourself. If it is harder than you thought then seek out the  appropriate resources to do the task. Also, no one does anything perfectly most of the time. We aren’t perfect and the things we do aren’t perfect. However, they are still very valuable and worthwhile. Perfection is not the point. I feel that if Denison students worried less about being close to perfect and trying to do so many different things at one time, they would greatly reduce their stress. Of course that isn’t true for every student, but it’s true for a lot of them.

Is mental health a big part of your life? How so?

I have never had the need thus far to seek out a professional to help me cope with mental or emotional stress, I have been able to deal with it myself.  However, my ability to deal with it effectively hasn’t always been good. In my twenties I often got down about where I was in life and worried a lot about my future. I think this is very common for that time in life. My most successful way of dealing with it was to try to understand myself very well. I tried to understand what situations stressed me out, what day-today worries stressed me out, what people stressed me out and then I tried to develop ways to deal with those situations, day-to-day worries and people. My methods didn’t work instantly, but knowing myself has helped me get a better understanding of what I can and can’t cope with so that I make better life decisions. I have learned to set priorities and focus on dealing with those as well as possible. I’ve given myself permission to not believe that everything is a priority and I am not going to be perfect on many things and that’s okay. For example, I don’t like to cook, but I think it is important that my children eat home cooked meals several days a week.  So I have a few set things I prepare (usually in advance) and then on days when I just can’t cope with cooking, we get take out. I don’t stress myself out if some weeks the eating out is more than others, I just except that there are ebbs and flows. It’s a priority, but I’m not perfect.

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