(U.S. News & World Report/America’s Best Colleges 2006)

Rahul Banerji had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder about a year before he arrived at Cornell University as a freshman in 2001. But, he says, “I thought it would affect the way I was treated as a student, so I hid that fact, and I decided to go off meds when I came to Cornell.” He ended up getting depressed, not going to classes, and ultimately taking a leave of absence from school. At home, he gained 65 pounds, didn’t leave the house for three months, and had to be hospitalized for two days. “It was the worst experience I’ve ever been through,” he says.

Medical assistance and his own wellness plan–he signed up at a gym, studied a language, and adopted a dog–enabled him to return to Cornell. But Banerji, now a junior majoring in psychology and Asian studies with plans to go to medical school, regrets that it took him almost two years to get back on track. That’s why he started Cornell Minds Matter, a student group that organizes informal discussions about mental health and stress-relieving activities. Something like this “definitely would have helped me as a freshman,” says Banerji.

Even though college students have come of age in an era when memoirs about mental illness top bestseller lists, a stigma against seeking help for mental illness persists on campuses. “People, especially at a competitive Ivy League school, think they can do it alone,” says Gregory Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell. But “none of us accomplishes anything alone.” The college years, he notes, are a time when young people struggle with mental health. For one thing, some mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, tend to show up in the late teens and early 20s. And college is stressful, as students face new challenges and create new identities for themselves. College pastimes such as drinking, using drugs, and pulling all-nighters don’t help matters, exacerbating the most common mental issues that students deal with–depression, anxiety, relationship problems, academic stress, and poor self-esteem.

SUPPORT SYSTEM. For students who do tap into mental health services, there are just a few pointers to keep in mind. First, says Allyson Midori Tanouye, director of the counseling and student development center at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, try to visit the center at the first inkling of trouble–or even before. “We want students to come in at any point along the way that they need to speak to someone who might be a little objective or supportive about a situation. You don’t have to be flunking a class or in a fistfight.” Most mental health centers offer an array of options, from having a conversation with a counselor about a one-time problem to embarking on a program of talk therapy and medication to joining a support group. You initiate treatment by calling or dropping in to make an appointment to talk with a counselor. If there is a risk that you will harm yourself or others, mental health counselors will see you immediately. Otherwise, be prepared to wait a few days or even a few weeks for an appointment, depending on the staffing level at your college’s center.

Unfortunately, many colleges are struggling to keep on top of the demands for mental health services, which have grown over the past decade in part because psychotropic drugs have made it possible for more students with severe psychological disorders to attend college. That means you may have to push to get the treatment you need. But, says Eells, “students have more power than they think they do. There may be systems that don’t feel very friendly when you’re a student, but with a little assertiveness, you’ll get plenty of support.”

Students who’ve been there suggest that there’s another resource that can make the process easier–your friends. “If you’re really doing badly, being faced with lists of insurance policies and phone numbers and calling people and setting up initial appointments is incredibly overwhelming,” observes Karen Latus, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan who started Finding Voice, a peer-support organization, after observing that several students in a Christian fellowship group she led felt demoralized by the stigma around their mental illnesses. “It’s really key that you have someone in your life who can say, ‘You are worth this; I believe you; you’re not just making this up.’”