Nosanow pens ‘The College Student’s Guide to Mental Health’

By John Horchner

St. Anthony Park resident Mia Nosanow draws on 20 years of experience as a mental health counselor at Macalester College in her new book “The College Student’s Guide to Mental Health.”

As a therapist to thousands of students for individual and group counseling, Nosanow noticed that roughly half of the issues students were bringing to her fell into the category of mental health and wellness, developmentally appropriate struggles that shouldn’t be labeled mental illness.

In an introductory email, she wrote, “There were common themes, and I looked around and didn’t find a resource that covered this.”

I caught up with Mia over Google Meet. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

How are things going with the book so far?

N: I’m a psychologist. I’ve never done a lot of promotion things. I’m trying to rise to the moment because it’s a forum to promote mental health, and that’s so important. So many people are hurting, so I’m just going to do my best.

How much do you believe in self-help from a book?

N: I’ve personally gotten help from self-help books. It’s a piece of the pie, though it’s not the whole pie. Because there’s no substitute for human interaction. But at the same time, reading and learning something by reading is extremely powerful.

The book is so comprehensive…

N: I started writing the book in 2007. And every year, I thought I was too late. But [the problem] has been growing since 2010. It’s not just social media. I don’t know if you saw it, but a recent happiness study … people under 30 in the U.S. are feeling a lot less connected and hopeful.

What type of therapy is practiced in this book? I noticed you broke it down to Awareness, Being and Choosing (ABC).

N: As I was counseling students over the years, and this is true in most college settings, you don’t have endless sessions. You have like 10 sessions, so I had to do things the shortest way I could.

I just developed this shorthand for a standard cognitive-behavioral model (CBT), which is also based on mindfulness. You know where you are [Awareness]. Try to just be with it and accept it and not judge [Being] and then, choose what to do [Choose]. I tried a lot of acronyms, and that was the easiest one to give to a client right in the session and break it down and have it be something that might stay with them.

Yeah, it’s even simpler than CBT. So it’s really nice to know the part about mindfulness… you know, third eye or whatever.

N: It’s such a foreign concept to most people…Where’s my head at? What am I thinking right now?…to try to capture even a couple of times per day what you’re thinking.

I’ll never forget the first time someone came back and said, “I’m surprised at how negative my thoughts are.” That was feedback from many other students. Students often don’t know what they’re saying to themselves. And it can be very harmful. When you’re saying “I’m so stupid, I’m so stupid” all the time.

We’ve got a whole cosmos in our heads, and people get stuck in thought habits. I tried to help students get that when it was appropriate, depending on what they were bringing in.

I was thinking of that today. I had this pain going on in my leg, and then finally, you know, I noticed that and then I decided, well maybe this is how it’s going to be. But it’s only one aspect of me, and I’ve got all these other things that I can think about. Am I going to define the rest of my life by this? I was like, wow, you really can apply it to anything.

N: It’s true, but that’s a hard one.

What about situations where there’s something beneath the surface there, you know, like trauma, family or other? Why wait till you’re 55 to deal with memories? I mean, it’s just silly.

N: That was hard to capture in the book. But there’s a section on identity, and it’s really a lot of reflection. But I try to stay pretty clear on how it’s good to start now. A lot of these topics can be dealt with in outside counseling.

The other reason for the book is that every staff member on campus is doing mental health now, not just the counseling center. Anybody who has contact with students is seeing multiple students in distress. They need to know more about what to say and how to approach things.

I’m gonna just rattle off a few things that I learned from the book. Here’s one, and I quote: “In some families, children have a hard time feeling worthy of love and belonging. This can trigger a reaction to try to use external achievements… like
being perfect to earn the deep, interior state of feeling loved with no expectation.” I have searched for years for that quote.

N: You can see it in the chapter on imposter syndrome. It cuts across all socio-economic groups, and it hits first-generation students pretty hard. That perfectionism is weird how it can find its way in.

It’s because our culture is selling that image of something, trying to define us this one way when we’re not really meant to be like that. We’re meant to be more soulful and earthbound and not just care about what we look like to people.

Why do people not let go of that? You know, externals?

N: I can’t solve all that in my book!

We at the counseling center at Macalester used to want to say, “aim to be average”… because you are already at this elite place… you don’t have to have a passion. You can still do good work. Find something where you can say, “this is pretty good” and that’s ok…Be average.”

I feel like my book is trying to say stuff that maybe feels countercultural and rebellious. To say take downtime, right? Definitely. And just hanging out or having quiet time without turning it into something productive.

What are a couple of the most interesting or surprising things you want people to learn?

N: One of the most consistently helpful things, but also hard to convince folks of, is that baby steps matter, attitude matters. Young people think they are already supposed to know what to do or be experts at their lives. No — it’s a huge, lifelong learning process. 

John Horchner is a professional writer who lives in St. Anthony Park.

Mia will be speaking at two upcoming events

6:30 May 9 at the St. Anthony Park Library
and 1 p.m. May 19. at the Roseville Barnes & Noble.

Find Nosanow’s book locally at boréal, Next Chapter Books, and Barnes & Noble in Roseville.
It’s also available at many places online or check out your local library.

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