There’s 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 — or even some physical symptoms — 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’t any particular sign or symptom to look out for.

“What we look for in terms of any mental illness are significant changes in how people are behaving, feeling, and thinking,” Dr. Shatkin said. “Behaviors can tell us a lot about how adults and teens are doing. In essence, we’re looking for a change in peoples’ ability to function in their usual relationship, work, and social roles.”

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 — for good and for bad — 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’s 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’s behavioral patterns and therefore can more accurately tell if the changes they’re 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: “At any time, if one is concerned about how they’re doing, or feeling like they’re 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,” he said.

Seeing a therapist is a win-win, Dr. Shatkin says. There’s less and less stigma around seeking professional help with mental illnesses. Even if you don’t have a mental illness, Dr. Shatkin says that seeing a therapist has great positive externalities. “Speaking 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,” he said.

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

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