For many people, college is the first time they’re truly on their own. From figuring out how to do laundry, to cooking meals to the best of your ability, to balancing friendships and schoolwork, it can sometimes get overwhelming. That’s why it’s important to know when to take a step back and prioritize your mental health.

Our emotional well-being and state of mind is just as important as our physical health. Mental wellness affects not just our behavior when it comes to daily activities, whether it’s studying or hanging out with friends, but also impacts our attitudes toward those activities and even our ability to enjoy reaching our goals.

Struggling to stay positive is very common. “With college comes a lot of stress that is related to the transition,” says Dr. Calvin Chin, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Princeton University. “Sometimes students can have a tougher time adjusting living away from home, having to take care of themselves in a very different way than they used to need to do in high school.”

He encourages students to seek out mental health resources earlier rather than later—but how do you know, exactly, when to do that? And how do you know if your condition is “serious” enough to need professional help?

Chin says that when students start to see anxiety or other negative feelings “interfering with their ability to function” and perform daily tasks, that’s when it might be time to talk to a professional. This is especially true if the situation has been ongoing for more than two weeks and you’re struggling to change things or feel better.

That said, Chin points out that you don’t have to even wait that long to get advice: “As soon as you start to feel stressed or as soon as you start to feel depressed, you can sort of nip things in the bud.”

Some people try to handle everything on their own, because it may feel complicated to explain what’s going on, or embarrassing to let friends or family know that they’re struggling. Others are not even aware that what they are feeling deserves professional attention.

On average, Asian Americans in particular are more reluctant to reach out to psychologists and other mental health professionals, and many communities are hesitant to even acknowledge mental health issues—even though more Asian American students report emotional struggles compared with the national average. Many still believe that having any kind of mental health issue will lead to difficulties in school, jobs, and marriage down the line—a misconception that is unfounded.

“There’s no shame in seeking out help, and I think that what counseling can do for you is help you help yourself,” says Chin. “Even if the students want to figure things out on their own, doing that with a counselor can make it that much more likely to succeed.” Professionals can offer different perspectives and give you various strategies to work through your problem.

Most schools have on-campus resources like one-on-one counseling sessions, group workshops, and even 24/7 phone hotlines. There are many national resources available as well, such as the National Counseling Group.

So what does a typical therapy session look like? A professional will jot down notes as the two of you have a conversation. The image might seem intimidating, but Chin suggests thinking of the psychologist or counselor as “just a normal person sitting across from [you].” They’re going to be open and friendly, he assures. You have an opportunity to be completely honest with yourself and receive feedback in return.

The bottom line is that if there’s even a question of whether or not you should take advantage of your school’s mental health services, it doesn’t hurt to go ahead and do it. Seeking help isn’t something to be ashamed about, and there are many trained professionals who are more than willing to guide you through safe and comfortable discussions.

Header by Juliann Cheryl Photography, model Dr. Cindy Kimmi Dao

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