Pitt-Johnstown therapist on how to improve mental health on campus


Emily Kist, Therapist, Pitt-Johnstown Office of Health & Counseling

Josalyn McMillan, Editor-in-Chief

Content Warning: This article contains discussions about mental illness and suicide. Please read with care.

The University of Pittsburgh is celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month this October, and nothing is more essential to success on a college campus than taking care of one’s well-being.

Emily Kist, a licensed clinical social worker with Pitt-Johnstown counseling services, has worked with countless students in her time as a therapist and professor of psychology at the university. She has helped them navigate the ups and downs of their college experience with her guidance and tips on managing this period of life.

Limiting Stress and Managing Workload

Whenever students tell Emily Kist they are stressed, she tells them, “Ok, let’s sort the laundry.” She helps students break down whatever is on their plate: school, credits, clubs, work, to find the root of their problem.

“What can you limit or cut out from one or some of these things?” She asks them. Even eliminating one factor from your schedule can make a world of a difference in their feelings of being overwhelmed to feeling on top of their responsibilities. Kist wants students to focus on the things that are in their control. She suggests that if you are in a leadership position in a club, frat or at work, delegate and portion out the work so you will not have to do everything yourself. “If you can decrease your work by an hour or two, that gives you an hour or two to do something else,” Kist said.

Recently, Kist has been having students fill out a week-long, hour-by-hour schedule noting how they are spending their time. Some students will see that they are spending hours a day on their phones when they could be doing homework. “Acknowledging and being aware is kind of what helps, ‘Where can I take something off of my plate?’ There’s always something someone can take off,” she said.

Kist also believes that you have to be your own advocate, “Learn to say no,” she said. “Like, I know you want to help your sisters with this project, or I know you want to help this person that’s struggling in your class, or I know somebody called off work and you just feel like you’re obligated to fill in, but you have got to say no.”

Kist strongly advises students to take a mental health day. “I understand that not all professors agree with or understand that,” she said. “In that case, you just tell them you’re not coming to class that day.” However, she suggests that mental health days should not be about going out with friends or partying, “It has to be effortless,” she said. “Go get a manicure, lay in your bed, do your Diamond Dotz.”

Another way students can manage their workload is by utilizing their resources on campus. She suggests that students might go to the Academic Success Center and get a tutor, go to a supplemental instruction (SI) session, or schedule an appointment at the counseling center. If you are getting ready to graduate, Kist suggests having a faculty member help edit your resume. “Don’t try to do this all on your own,” Kist said. “That’s why we have these resources, and they’re there for students.”

Dealing with Homesickness

Kist recommends that if your family is able to, have them come to campus and visit. It helps to introduce them to your space, so you don’t feel the need to go home all the time. Have your family come to Johnstown and show them around so that you get familiar with the town as well.

“This is your new home, and it’s always important that they make it home,” Kist said. It’s important to make your space on campus somewhere that feels recognizable and comfortable. “Literally get involved with whatever you can at first to kind of pull you into this new atmosphere,” she said. “It may feel uncomfortable, but if you keep going home because you’re homesick, then that’s only gonna enforce that behavior.” However, Kist also believes, “If you’re homesick, and you’re hellbent on going home, give it one month. If you still wanna go home after that month, have that conversation with your family… The first month is really the hardest.”

Getting in the Routine

In college, classes and day-to-day schedules can vary so much that it may seem hard to find consistency in your life. “Try on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, to do the same thing as much as you can,” Kist said. The same applies for Thursdays and Tuesdays.

One of Kist’s students wakes up and writes in their journal every morning instead of getting on their phone. It’s about incorporating meditation or a calming experience to start off the day instead of lying in bed until the last minute. When you wait to start your day, you end up rushing around trying to get to class on time. This can set the tone of your whole day.

“Getting a new routine is gonna be the hardest thing,” Kist said. “But once you do it, it’s just ingrained in you.” Find something you want to get in the habit of, and experiment with different routines. “If you decide to skip class, you’re interrupting your routine,” she said. “And you have to have the self-discipline to get back into it the next day.”

Taking naps is something that throws a lot of sleep schedules out of balance. Try to get all your work done during the same hours of the day so you are free to sleep on a regular schedule. “If you take a nap, damn well make sure you’re gonna get up and do what you need to do, and if you can’t do that, then don’t take that nap on that day,” Kist said.

Red Flags

If you notice your friend is not coming out of their room, not going to class, sleeping a lot, or avoiding everything, these signs may be cause for concern. Maybe you and your friend used to go out together, but that friend no longer want to do those kinds of fun activities. Your friend may also be having a hard time if they’ve recently stopped doing things that they may have had fun doing before.

“I always say friends need to check in on friends even when you’re feeling ok,” Kist said. “Because depression doesn’t always look like a sad face or crying.” Oftentimes, people–men especially–can experience depression through heightened anger, impulsiveness, and excessive drinking and drug abuse. “Everybody experiences a lot of the same things internally, but how we express it is very different,” she said. “The biggest myth though is, you know, people think, ‘If I ask somebody if they’re going to commit suicide, then that’s going to put it in their head,’ and that’s completely false. They’re actually waiting for you to ask them that question.” It’s important to ask your friends these big, difficult questions. They may be looking for someone to talk to about it with.

Kist notes that if someone tells you they are planning on committing suicide, immediately tell your resident’s assistant (RA) or call campus police, and they will provide a wellness check. In severe circumstances, campus police will call Cambria County Crisis, who will come to campus and do an assessment with the student to determine whether or not they need to go to the hospital.

Drug and Alcohol Abuse

When taking antidepressants or any kind of psychotropic medication or narcotics, if you drink alcohol or take them with other drugs and substances, it is important to remember that they are going to immediately mix with the medication in your system. Drinking after taking medication will sometimes even flush the medication out of your system very quickly, because every substance you take must be processed through your liver. Your body is going to have a different response to alcohol as opposed to before you were taking that medication.

“Then I’ll see students not taking their medicine because they’re going out and drinking several nights a week,” Kist said. “That is probably the worst thing you could do, because your body’s like, ‘Wait, we had it, now we don’t.’ It’s actually worse for you.” If you are suffering from mental illness, Kist advises taking a step back from self-medication, and slowly decrease your intake of substances until you can wean yourself from any dependency you might develop.

“Your brain, imagine construction workers are up there,” she said. “You’re getting therapy, you’re getting medication, and you’re mixing a night of black-out drunk with all of that. Your construction workers are up there trying to repair your receptors to set off these good chemicals that you don’t have to get from drugs and alcohol. So, it’s interfering with all of that. And I get it, it’s hard because the culture is, ‘I still wanna be a college student and have fun,’ just do it in moderation. Be more careful if you’re on medication.”


“Academic success is completely, one hundred percent based on your mental well-being,” Kist said. “You can’t succeed in college–or be socializing or be functioning really–in a healthy way unless your mental health is in line. If you’re not okay, nothing else around you is going to be okay… Utilize your resources, meaning, talk to your professors. It doesn’t hurt to go to them and say, ‘I’m struggling’ or ‘I’m not doing well, and that’s why I kinda did bad on this test.’”

Campus counseling services are free. If students want to be seen on campus, there may, however, be a waiting list of about a week or two as the semester progresses. If you choose to see a care representative off-campus, be aware that they most likely will charge your insurance.

Remember that not every therapist is going to feel right. Every one of them is different. Kist tells her students: “‘Shop around.’ This is the most unique relationship you’ll ever have in your life. You don’t go in a shoe store and take the first shoe you see and say ‘Yeah, this is like ten sizes too big, but this is what I’m taking.’ No! You have to make sure it fits. You’re not stuck. You have to have that connection, it’s so important.”

For more information, please refer to Emily Kist’s recommendations of online and local resources:
● Psychologytoday.com (If you enter your zip code on this website, they will provide a list of therapists in the area)
● Betterhelp.com
● Alternative Community Resource Program (ACRP): 814-535-2277
● Conemaugh Counseling: 814-534-1095
● Nulton Diagnostic: 814-262-0025

Go to Home | Thrive @ Pitt for more tips from the university on how to care for your well-being at Pitt.