There鈥檚 a lot to think about when you leave for college: Between decorating your dorm room, picking your classes, and scoping out your new squad, you hardly have time left to think about your mental health. Despite all the distractions college throws at you, this time in your life is more important than ever for your emotional development. If you notice above normal feelings of stress for yourself or a friend 鈥 or even some physical symptoms 鈥 all of these distractions (and the changes going on in your brain), might be taking their toll. Dr. Jess Shatkin, a nationally recognized adolescent psychiatrist and author of Born to be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Keep Them Safe, has some expert tips for approaching this hard situation.

Laughing college students hugging on campus

According to Dr. Shatkin, 75 percent of chronic mental illness sets on by age 24. While there are warning signs of their onset, there isn鈥檛 any particular sign or symptom to look out for.

鈥淲hat we look for in terms of any mental illness are significant changes in how people are behaving, feeling, and thinking,鈥 Dr. Shatkin said. 鈥淏ehaviors can tell us a lot about how adults and teens are doing. In essence, we鈥檙e looking for a change in peoples鈥 ability to function in their usual relationship, work, and social roles.鈥

Some examples of these behavioral changes include isolation, spending less time with friends and hobbies, and missing work or school. Since transitioning to college life is such as tumultuous time 鈥 for good and for bad 鈥 it can be hard to decipher which behaviors are the result of this change and which behaviors point to a deeper mental health disorder.

One way to tell the difference in others, Dr. Shatkin says, is to keep an eye on your friend鈥檚 perspective. Increased worry or bad moods might signify an anxiety or mood disorder, he says, but more severe cases such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or schizophrenia might cause someone to lose perspective on their behavior entirely. As a friend, you have context for your friend鈥檚 behavioral patterns and therefore can more accurately tell if the changes they鈥檙e experiencing have more serious implications.

If you feel like you or a friend might have a mental illness, Dr. Shatkin has a simple piece of advice: 鈥淎t any time, if one is concerned about how they鈥檙e doing, or feeling like they鈥檙e not able to meet their usual expectations and life demands, then having a visit with a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist (or even starting with their primary care doctor) is a good idea,鈥 he said.

Seeing a therapist is a win-win, Dr. Shatkin says. There鈥檚 less and less stigma around seeking professional help with mental illnesses. Even if you don鈥檛 have a mental illness, Dr. Shatkin says that seeing a therapist has great positive externalities. 鈥淪peaking with a therapist can have great value in understanding ourselves, identifying the triggers that upset us, and coming up with strategies to avoid these pitfalls in the future,鈥 he said.

How do you focus on your mental well-being? Let us know @BritandCo.

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