RICHMOND, Va. -- The idea of self-care has become a passionate movement in recent years encouraging people to recharge their minds, bodies, and souls. As younger generations deal with increasing mental health problems, many college students have found themselves at the forefront of pushing the trend forward.
“I’ll come out and sit in the sun and read a book, or I’ll watch people in the park," said VCU honor student Elianna Bavuso on a breezy Sunday afternoon in Monroe Park. "I'll compliment people's outfits, and I like to pick up trash around Richmond."
These activities are among some of her favorite ways to decompress. While Bavuso said carving out time to focus on her well-being is essential, it's not always convenient.
“I think one of the things that came with COVID-19 is that there is no more separation of school time and off time," she said. “Since everything is online, or hybrid online, or even in-person has a lot of online elements, the homework time never stops."
The sophomore began her college experience in the midst of the pandemic.
“Coming into college as part of the COVID generation, it’s difficult to make friends, it’s very difficult to meet new people, and I think the pandemic and lockdown really gave people the opportunity to kind of give into their demons in a way," Bavuso explained.
Unique challenges related to coronavirus only piled on top of an already mentally stressful and pivot time in her life.
“Eating disorders were a really big thing," she said. "I know I definitely struggled with that a lot coming into college because part of it is that new sense of individuality.”
Bavuso isn't alone in facing mental health challenges. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, 75% of mental health conditions begin by age 24. One in four young adults has a diagnosable mental illness, and more than 25% of college students have been treated or diagnosed with a mental health condition.
“The trend has been upward for more college students seeking mental health services," said Dr. Jihad Aziz, the Executive Director of VCU's Counseling Services.
As exams, assignments, and other academic responsibilities ramp up during midterm season, Dr. Aziz encourages students to get ahead of their stress. He said students can take preventative measures to potentially avoid needing a therapist or medication.
“Can we do some more mindfulness strategies, exercise, eat right, connect with our friends," he said. "Wellness is recreational. It's being spiritually centered, it's being mindful."
Before seeking out a therapist, Aziz recommends speaking with loved ones, friends, family, or spiritual leaders. For those who do find themselves needing additional support, he said counseling services can help extraordinarily.
Aziz also applauded moves by other schools, including Virginia State University and the University of North Carolina, that have given students a day off from class to focus on their mental wellness.
“It creates a sense of belonging and support which is a high impact practice for student success," Aziz said. "Sometimes you just need a break.”
And for anyone who might be struggling, Bavuso has a message of encouragement.
“You need to hold on to the moments that are making you happy and are reminding you why it’s a beautiful life and you’re glad to be living it," she said. "Because that’s what you’ll remember at the end of the day.”