Seth Nilsen’s Personal Journey Continues
by LENNY KOUPAL, CSU Communications Coordinator
Using his own awareness and recovery as a guide, Seth Nilsen hopes for a career helping teachers recognize the early stages of mental health disorders.
Comparing mental health disorder to the four stages of cancer, the health and physical education major at Minnesota State University, Mankato believes early communication leads to treatment before situations become life-threatening.
“A lot of times people with mental health disorders seek treatment in Stage 3 or Stage 4. If they seek treatment in Stage 1 or 2, their mental health disorder doesn’t advance. I’m hoping that teachers can notice these signs and symptoms of mental disorder in Stage 1 or Stage 2,” Nilsen said. “They can help students before it gets worse.”
In his third year at Minnesota State Mankato, the native of Mendota Heights, Minn., is the founder of the Mental Health Mankato, a registered student organization devoted to piercing the silence many students feel around their personal mental health.
“We are advocating for people to be more comfortable talking about their feelings of anxiety and depression,” Nilsen said. “I know first-hand how important it is to make that conversation more comfortable. It’s really too bad that too many people still struggle in silence and that is something I hope to put an end to on this campus and, after college, off this campus.”
Green bandanas seen tied to backpacks across the Minnesota State Mankato campus are among signs of the impact already made by this student organization.
Nilsen said Mental Health Mankato handed out hundreds of green bandanas to students willing to raise mental health awareness.
“The green bandanas signify an openness to talk about mental health and have that hard conversation if you are a person in need,” Nilsen said. “They are willing to take a few minutes out of their day to have a conversation about mental health with a person they may not even know. That’s awesome. I think the culture is changing. I know if I’m having a down day and I see five green bandanas on my walk to class, it instantly boosts my mood.”
‘I know first-hand how important it is to make that conversation more comfortable. It’s really too bad that too many people still struggle in silence and that is something I hope to put an end to on this campus and, after college, off this campus.’SETH NILSEN, FOUNDER OF MENTAL HEALTH MANKATO
Talking mental health disorders into submission is something Nilsen learned through experience.
As early as middle school, Nilsen became aware of his own social anxiety. Silence and self-denial kept the burden a personal one. Throughout his high school years, the fear of public speaking triggered his growing anxiety.
“Mental health disorders to me growing up always sounded like a weakness. I never felt comfortable talking about it to anyone,” Nilsen recalls. “It gradually got worse and worse.”
By his senior year, Nilsen was self-medicating with Xanax. An end-of-the-year project pushed him to confront his mental disorder.
“I had a group presentation that day. With my social anxiety, I just said, ‘I can’t do it.’ To acknowledge something you can’t do and ask for help was super-hard,” Nilsen said. “I remember that day I had my mom pick me up from school. I gave her the rest of the Xanax that I had and I told her I need help. I don’t know if I cried that hard in my entire life.”
Nilsen knew if he didn’t get professional help, he wouldn’t be able to go to college. He started seeing a counselor on the last day of high school. He learned talking – sometimes to someone with an unbiased opinion – can be a powerful tool.
“Once I opened up and started talking about my mental health with other people, it was really amazing to see how things I used to perceive as a weakness started turning into my strengths,” he said.
‘The biggest risk I’ve ever taken in my life was choosing to be a health and physical education teacher. I knew I wanted to teach about health – especially mental health. I knew I had to put myself in those situations that always made me feel uncomfortable in order to conquer a fear.’SETH NILSEN
By the time he was in his second-year communications class, Nilsen had the tools to come face-to-face with his anxiety.
“I was pretty damn scared going into that class because that class is really what my anxiety was all about,” Nilsen said.
Looking at his best friend in the midst of a class speech was an epiphany moment.
“She wasn’t showing any emotion. She seemed pretty bored,” he said. “That was a really big moment for me because I always thought all these eyes were on me – as you often think with anxiety. It was amazing to see that other people don’t necessarily care that much about what you are doing.”
Nilsen said once he realized his anxiety-driven fear wasn’t justified, he started opening more doors to his future.
“Now I’m going into education and I’m going to be a teacher. I chose my major when I couldn’t stand in front of two people and give a presentation. For me, the biggest risk I’ve ever taken in my life was choosing to be a health and physical education teacher. I knew I wanted to teach about health – especially mental health. I knew I had to put myself in those situations that always made me feel uncomfortable in order to conquer a fear,” he said.
His self-realization and conquests that followed, led to Nilsen creating Mental Health Mankato as a force of change. Among the students he seeks to help are the newest ones to campus.
“Those students are our main focus. There’s that six-month transition period when coming to college. During that time it’s hard for people to avoid dealing with things they’ve been pushing off in high school. Once you’re on your own you can’t push it off,” he said.
When situations turn extreme, the results can range from dropping out of school to substance abuse to suicidal thoughts or actions.
“My big message is not to be afraid to reach out for help,” he said.
That’s where Mental Health Mankato seeks to help students open up whether it be with a peer or a professional.
Nilsen credits the Counseling Center as the best source for help on campus.
“I’ve gone there personally,” he said. “Generally, you get in right away for your first appointment.”
Mental Health Mankato is also involved with collaborative programs on campus. Recently the organization helped 17 Minnesota State Mankato students complete a Mental Health First Aid Certification Course. Nilsen, who completed the eight-hour course, said the program for nursing students was opened to others through a Centennial Student Union contribution.
“It provides pretty deep background into assessing people for thoughts of suicide and other types of mental health disorders,” he said. “I’ve never had to talk that deeply to anybody about suicide – to have those kinds of conversations. I personally learned a lot and took a lot away from that course.”
Other programs by the student organization include a partnership with Leadership U for a series of resident hall presentations.
As he looks to his own future, Nilsen said he is working to shape a high school teaching career that brings mental health disorders into the light.
“I hope to be a teacher that has influence on a student that I never had as a student,” he said. “I hope to be a teacher who is there for a student who is going through something – to be there as a role model, as a friend. Because each student is different. I hope to guide them down the right path and get them any other help that I’m not able to provide.”
In the end, it’s all about balance.
“The biggest thing I would recommend is finding your own personal balance while also pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and doing things you normally wouldn’t want to do.”
For Seth Nilsen, it’s good advice for mental health – and life in general.