Willson: Students need to speak up about the mental health of others

Lauren Willson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.

Trigger Warning: The Collegian would like to inform its readers that the content in this article may trigger those affected by mental health issues or eating disorders.


Several weeks ago, the Student Veteran Organization of Colorado State University held a suicide awareness fundraising event called “Operation Bear Hug.” The gathering aimed to increase knowledge on the subject of suicide, as well as initiate the conversation surrounding mental illness. The importance of Operation Bear Hug should not be ignored. Lack of direct action and communication can make those suffering from mental illness believe that their conditions are not real problems. 90 percent of those who commit suicide will have suffered from an underlying mental health problems. It is crucial to speak up if you believe someone is struggling with any kind of psychological disorder because it might just save a life.

Mental illness affects millions in the U.S., including students right here on campus. Throughout the first semester of my freshman year, I was struggling with severe anorexia nervosa and was in the midst of the worst relapse of my life. Yet even when my 5’6” frame stood at a sickly 80 pounds, no one told me directly they were concerned about my behavior. Rather than keeping silent, I wish someone had spoken up and said: “I’m worried about you. If you’re ready, let me help you get help.”

Regardless of whether one is struggling with an eating disorder, anxiety, depression or any other kind of mental illness, hearing words of concern from a trusted friend or loved one is often the most powerful catalyst for recovery and seeking treatment.

As an example: during my relapse, I worked out fiendishly at the Rec. On a few occasions, people approached me, but only to say things like, “wow, you’re really strong for your size!” I know these people meant well, but their “compliments” only fueled the disordered thoughts in my mind, which translated into repetition of destructive behaviors like excessive exercise. I figured if strangers can appreciate my physical strength, surely I must not be ill, surely my BMI of 12.9 is healthy.

What I wish someone would have done sooner is interrupt my set to express concern and implore me to seek help. I was lucky enough to experience this. A stranger in the gym pulled me aside and said in a calm, respectful tone, “hey, I don’t mean to be rude, but you don’t look very well. Are you okay? Are you eating enough?” I might not have opened up to him—I brushed off his comment with a laugh and an “I’m great!”—but once I learned that others saw abnormality in my appearance, I began to pay greater attention to my condition and consider the idea of getting professional treatment.

If you are worried about someone, it is crucial that you express that concern in a respectful manner. Do not accuse them of doing anything and try not to make assumptions. Just let them know you care and see if they are responsive to your words.

If you are afraid of what your friend or loved one might think, please remember that silence can be much more destructive than speaking out.

As another example: there were strong signs of my eating disorder in the dining hall, where I often ate with friends. I forced myself to eat small-portioned, high-protein vegetarian meals. While it’s important to eat enough protein, I was overdoing it to a fault. And of course, I gorged on enormous salads, chewed endless packs of gum and guzzled water and coffee in an effort to ignore constant hunger.

Whenever I ate with friends, I saw the way they eyed my food choices. No one ever commented on it. I’m not saying we should criticize anyone’s diet, but that’s exactly what I saw others doing to themselves and sometimes others. Their silence convinced the disordered part of my mind that my “meals” were fine, so I shouldn’t change anything about the way I was eating. I continued to starve myself for months.

Perhaps if someone had gently pointed out the strangeness of my diet and suggested a more normal action like getting dessert, I would have been more cognizant of my abnormal eating behavior.


My reason for sharing all of this is not to criticize those who don’t reach out. I understand that people hold their tongues for fear of hurting loved ones.

What I want you, the reader, to know is that expressing concerning for someone else’s behavior does not make you nosy or disrespectful. Chances are the person will be glad someone noticed their struggles, as many with mental illness often feel their battle is an invisible one.

CSU has an excellent service called Tell Someone. The service helps connect these individuals with resources and professionals who can help them address their mental health and/or emotional difficulties. This is an ideal option for those who want to help, but don’t know how to verbalize their concerns.

Lauren Willson can be reached at letters@collegian and online at @LaurenKealani