Stress, exams, parties, freedom, money …college.  There are a lot of key words that trigger associations to higher education, but mental health is not often one of them.  This comes as little surprise, considering that mental health issues are labeled almost universally as taboo in general conversation.

So what is mental health, really?

For the purposes of this article, let’s regard mental health as the state of an individual’s psychological and emotional well-being. In fact, no definitions for the phrase “mental health” exist in the Webster, Oxford, or Cambridge dictionary.

Talk about lack of awareness.

So, we’ll dish about that wild concert we went to last month, or that brutal final we just took – but how we feel?  That’s typically a conversation only friends will have – and only if it’s a comfortable friendship.

The wealth of misinformation out there concerning mental illness, along with the casual use of terms such as “psycho,” “schizo,” and “insane” do little to encourage students like you and me to talk about what’s really going on when something’s wrong.

While a significant portion of us will struggle with mental health issues at some point in our college careers, few will actively seek the help necessary.  Even though fear of judgment can hold us back, needing help is not uncommon – and it’s never something to be ashamed about.

College campuses offer many mental health resources – nearly all of which are free.  If you are curious, or feel like you may have an issue, you can try this mental health screening program.

However, nothing takes the place of a licensed professional when it comes to counseling.  After all,  their job is to help you out.  More likely than not, your tuition is already paying for those services – guess it’s not that free, huh? – so don’t be afraid to use them!

If you break a bone, you want to see a doctor that’s qualified to help you.  Think about taking care of your mental health with the same attention you give to your physical health.

If you’re concerned about someone else who may be having difficulty and needs help, don’t just stand by.  Sometimes, the best thing you can do is let them know you are there for them – and mean it.  While they may not take you up on your offer immediately, they now have the option to do so.  They’re no longer alone. Use common sense.  If the situation is such that the person will do themselves or others harm, do not hesitate to contact the authorities.

Though what we’ve been covering so far focuses mostly on diagnosable mental illnesses, mental health ranges far beyond that.  Stress, anxiety, and even home sickness are all facets that can affect mental health.

In a Booth Research survey of 1,000 participants, 64% of 18-24 year olds report “being more stressed today than six months ago.” You may even wonder why those numbers aren’t higher.  After all, stress is only natural when considering the college lifestyle. Academics, finances, relationships –  the priorities we juggle can go on and on, often with mental health as one of the last on the list. Sometimes, it can feel like there’s just too much to think about. It sounds important, but so do a lot of other things.

While mental health is not as visible as physical health, it’s just as significant.  To do consistently well academically, you need to have good mental health.  To stay physically healthy, you need to have good mental health.  To get dates … okay, not necessarily, but you get the pattern.

When you feel good – when you’re mentally healthy – you’re more likely to do well.  The following are just a few ways you can start to incorporate mental health into your own lifestyle.  If they sound familiar to you, it’s because mental health is innately connected to your general wellbeing.

1. Have a sleep schedule.
When you sleep, your body heals.  Having a set time to sleep and wake means your body learns to make the most out of those hours in dreamland.

2. Get enough sleep – read: at least seven hours.
Most healthy adults need this amount of sleep to function well when they’re awake.  Lots of good stuff – memory retention, neurotransmitter replacement, feel-good fuzzies like serotonin and dopamine refueling – happens during REM, which translates into better performance during your waking hours.

3. Have a support system.
When things go wrong, having at least one person to turn to can be the key to getting back on track.  Whether your support system is one person or a whole group, having those connections will help ease the pressure in your mind and help bring the focus back on your goals rather than your failures.

4. Get physical.  Regularly.
When your heart gets pumping, your mood lifts.  Exercise is as great for relieving stress as it is for keeping you in shape.  If you don’t have the time or the willpower for an hour at the gym everyday, try an activity you might enjoy more – dancing, gardening, or sports are just a few potential alternatives.  If you’re not ready to commit to that yet, build your confidence through small steps, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or walking or biking instead of using your car.

5. Eat breakfast.
If you’re like me, you get cranky when you’re hungry.  Even if you don’t, eating breakfast gives your brain that boost it needs to stay awake during that 8 am class.  I prefer something I can eat on the go, like fruit, granola bars, or breakfast wraps.

6. Go outside.
Even the most hermit-like of college students need the sun once in a while.  In the words of Dr Pierce J. Howard, author of The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, “sunlight is a natural mood enhancer, and can increase creativity and productivity.”  At the very least, open up a window.

7. Smile like you mean it.

Go on.  Try it now.  See what I mean?

Reissa Decena is a junior studying creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and is a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.  She is an officer for the UCR Chapter of Active Minds, a mental health organization created specifically to serve college students.  When she’s not studying, she experiments in the college community garden, works as a peer mentor for the honors program, and paints her nails.