If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential, and anyone can use this service. For more information, visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.
Attending college comes with extra challenges that can impact mental health. Meeting deadlines, managing budgets, and planning for the future may trigger feelings of anxiety or depression. It may also lead to alcohol dependence.
Rather than self-medicating through substance abuse, students experiencing mental health issues should seek extra support during college. Therapy, support groups, and medications can make a big impact on quality of life.
This guide features resources to manage student mental health. Read on to learn common types of mental health challenges and how to seek help for each.
Understanding Student Mental Health
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students' mental health. Due to the stigma around mental health, some students may feel less inclined to openly share about their struggles. Despite how it may seem, many students experience mental health issues.
A survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors shows college student mental health has been a growing concern since 2013. The survey found 95% of college counseling center directors believed the number of students with significant psychological problems was an increasing campus issue.
The directors also reported that 21% of students who visit the campus counseling center presented severe mental health concerns. At the same time, 40% of students presented mild health concerns.
More recent data published in 2021 echoes the same sentiment on mental health for students. The University of Florida's mental health clinic saw a 106% increase of adult patients attending their first appointment in August between 2019 and 2020. The amount increased by another 4% in 2021.
Stress and Anxiety
Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder may become magnified during high-stress seasons of life. In fact, people are most at risk between childhood and middle age.
Everyone experiences this condition differently. Stress and anxiety may manifest as procrastination, insomnia, worry, and inability to focus. These two conditions may also cause physical symptoms like shortness of breath, headaches, upset stomach, or increased heartbeat.
Where to Get Help
Students can manage their stress and anxiety in many ways. First, they can seek help from a licensed therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist. The Anxiety & Depression Association of America publishes a therapist directory of providers who specialize in this condition.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also offers coping ideas. Many of the recommendations, including meditating and eating nutritiously, benefit general health. Spending time with friends and connecting with nature may also ease symptoms. Students may also explore online support groups.
General practitioners at campus health clinics can sometimes offer medications for managing anxiety. They may refer students to a specialist or connect them with community resources. Many campuses feature a counseling center where students can engage in talk therapy. These centers may run stress and anxiety peer groups.
Other college campuses offer creative resources for managing stress. Options may include massages, canine therapy sessions, and nap halls.
Depression ranges from extended periods of mild sadness to prolonged feelings of intense hopelessness. Some students experience depression and anxiety at once. Depression can make people feel lethargic, unmotivated, and uninterested in things they once loved. Some people may have trouble sleeping, while others may sleep too much.
Certain life experiences may trigger depression, which some professionals call situational depression. This may occur after earning a series of bad grades, losing a job, losing a loved one, or undergoing a traumatic experience. Fortunately, medication can work as a temporary or long-term aid for both situational and ongoing depression.
No matter how depression manifests, students should seek help and support from their community and professionals.
Where to Get Help
People experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm should immediately contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. This organization offers free 24/7 phone and chat assistance. Caller information stays confidential.
Students can join an online support group to manage day-to-day symptoms. People who need assistance from medication should talk to a doctor. The American Psychological Association (APA) publishes a list of licensed care providers.
Students can often find help for depression right on campus. Many schools offer depression peer support groups and school-based counseling.
First-year students at some schools take a suicide prevention class. Other colleges offer regular mental-health check-ins throughout learners' enrollment. By educating every student on the signs of depression, learners know when to check in on their friends.
Drug Abuse and Alcoholism
Some students turn to drugs or alcohol to numb feelings of anxiety or depression. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism surveyed college students and found that 33% of college students surveyed say they engaged in binge drinking in the past month. Binge drinking can cause permanent changes in brain chemistry and physical health.
Students should not let feelings of shame surrounding drug abuse and alcoholism prevent them from seeking help. Genetics make some people prone to addiction. With professional help and community support, sobriety is possible.
Where to Get Help
Alcoholics Anonymous is a popular support group with meetings all across America. Students who want more one-on-one or immediate assistance can contact an alcohol and drug rehab hotline.
If talking to someone in person or over the phone seems intimidating, online resources may help. WebMD publishes a directory of types of substance abuse and informative articles about rehab. American Addiction Centers make it easy to locate the nearest rehabilitation center.
Fortunately, schools have been adding curricula about drug and alcohol abuse. This can help break the issue's stigma. Sometimes learners need to take a break from their studies to attend rehab.
A school's on-campus counseling center may handle communication with professors on students' behalf. Students can also check with the school counseling center to learn whether they offer drug abuse and alcoholism peer groups. Some schools may also offer recovery programs.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Some people may view ADHD as more of a childhood disorder. However, some people go undiagnosed until adulthood. Researchers believe the condition may manifest between the ages of 10-25 as late-onset ADHD.
ADHD symptoms may appear as hyperactivity, procrastination, an inability to focus, and impulsive behavior. Students who notice a decline in quality of work and grades despite their best efforts should consider pursuing a possible ADHD diagnosis.
Where to Get Help
Students can begin by consulting with a general care practitioner. Primary care physicians may prescribe medicine or make recommendations for lifestyle changes. Or, they may refer the patient to a mental health specialist.
Some students with ADHD find success in completing schoolwork using the body doubling technique. Body doubling occurs when two or more people work on similar independent tasks alongside one another. This may look like a study session with a friend. Additionally, some organizations offer support groups and online resources.
Students without a current ADHD diagnosis can often receive an evaluation at their campus' health clinic. Some third-party ADHD organizations partner with schools to provide informative meetings and literature on the condition.
Students with an ADHD diagnosis can pursue special accommodations. For example, schools may offer private, distraction-free testing centers. Learners with ADHD may benefit from working on homework inside the campus library for a similar reason.
Eating disorders impact people regardless of their gender. Students dealing with body image issues or feeling a lack of control in their life may develop an eating disorder. Common types of eating disorders include anorexia and bulimia. Students coping with an eating disorder often skip meals, but they may binge eat after a long period of hunger. These people may feel a sense of guilt when eating foods they deem unhealthy and regurgitate soon after eating.
Orthorexia is a less commonly talked about type of eating disorder. People experiencing orthorexia have an obsession with eating healthy. They excessively avoid many types of foods and check nutrition labels frequently.
Where to Get Help
Unfollowing triggering accounts on social media, like fitness influencers or models may benefit some people. Students with a history of disordered eating may need to avoid using calorie-counting apps, which could trigger a relapse.
In some cases, attending rehab can help people achieve a healthy weight and mindset.
A school counseling center may provide therapy and resources for students managing eating disorders. Some schools run eating disorder peer groups and offer nutrition counseling. Learners with orthorexia may benefit from taking nutrition classes as elective credits. These classes may help them reframe the definition of healthy food and learn how to identify misinformation surrounding food.
By getting help from school resources, learners can discover how to view food as fuel.
People with OCD experience recurrent and uncontrollable thoughts, also known as obsessions. Some people describe these as urges or as seeing disturbing mental images. These thoughts may lead to repeated actions, also known as compulsions.
OCD manifests in different ways. Some people with the disorder may have a fear of germs or an obsession with order and symmetry. Others may experience uncontrollable thoughts about harming others or unwanted thoughts about sex.
Where to Get Help
A licensed psychiatrist may prescribe medication or offer management techniques for patients with OCD. Engaging in talk therapy with a counselor may also help. These professionals can also offer ideas on managing impulses, especially if the action is physically harmful.
Some people may find it easier to communicate about sensitive topics in the privacy of their homes. The International OCD Foundation offers a list of teletherapy providers. Joining an online support group allows people to share management techniques with their peers.
Many colleges and universities may offer special accommodations for learners with OCD. For example, if a type of assignment triggers a compulsion, a student may substitute it with a different assignment. They may also receive permission to access a private testing center to complete exams.
Students receiving treatment for OCD should communicate any absences due to appointments or medication changes. Some professors may waive missed attendance points if learners maintain open communication.
Some schools may facilitate OCD peer groups, where students share techniques and healthy coping skills.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD occurs in some individuals after experiencing a startling or dangerous event. During a scary moment, distress is a normal response. This fight-or-flight impulse encourages survival.
However, people with PTSD may feel unsafe and afraid long after the event ends. People with this disorder may also feel like they relive the situation through flashbacks. They may also experience recurring dreams about the event.
Fortunately, PTSD may resolve with time. However, many people must seek talk and exposure therapy to face their fears and feel better. Attempting to avoid thinking about the event or avoiding the event's location are symptoms of PTSD.
Where to Get Help
Speaking with other people with PTSD may help a person feel less alone. Even connecting with a moderated social media support group may help. However, some people need professional help to learn coping strategies.
Since PTSD commonly occurs in veterans, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs connects them with resources. This government department publishes tools for helping veterans find PTSD therapists.
People managing PTSD can seek support through a school counseling center. Some schools allow students to engage in talk therapy with graduate students studying psychology. This service may come free or on a sliding scale.
Students should also talk with their academic advisor about classroom, assignment, and test accommodations. People with PTSD may receive extended deadlines. They may also receive accommodations based on triggers.
Expert Interview: Beth Jakubanis, MSW
Beth Jakubanis is the founder of SoCal Therapy Center and SoCal Child Therapy. She provides counseling and therapy to children and families in Los Angeles. She helps with conditions like ADHD, depression, anxiety, and oppositional defiant disorder.
Q. What Are Some Common Triggers for Individuals With These Mental Health Challenges, Specifically in K-12?
Common triggers for depression and anxiety can trace back to pressures or changes in school or family life. A kid can experience anxiety, for example, for a variety of reasons. One possible reason is pressure at school. They may experience a change of a teacher or classroom, or they may experience conflicts with other kids in the form of social media bullying or face-to-face bullying.
A kid may experience depression as a result of a loss of an important relationship or a change in the family, such as an older sibling leaving the house or a new sibling joining the family.
Causes of alcoholism and drug abuse are complex. Some individuals are sensation-seeking and experiment with them to pursue the sensation. Other individuals may live in an environment where alcohol and drug use is normalized. There is also a genetic component to a vulnerability to alcoholism and drug abuse.
Eating disorders have a genetic component. These disorders are often activated when people want a sense of control. Controlling the food that comes in or out of their body may be the most control they can exercise over their circumstances.
PTSD usually occurs when an individual experiences a life-or-death situation. The amygdala improperly stores the fear-inducing memory. Some research has found that pregnant mothers who experience trauma can pass along a genetic marker which creates a vulnerability toward PTSD in their children.
Q. How Can Students Who Experience These Mental Health Issues Best Take Care of Themselves?
- 1. Strengthen your support network.
A support network of teachers, adults, and friends can reduce feelings of isolation. This network can help people normalize their feelings, improve their mood, and think differently about their circumstances. Research shows that one supportive adult at a school can reduce the likelihood that a student will drop out.
- 2. Engage in pleasurable activities.
Engaging in pleasurable activities can improve our mood. Some ideas include listening to or dancing to favorite music, reading a favorite book, rollerblading, swimming, or playing with animals.
- 3. Set goals for yourself.
When someone's mood is low, it can be difficult to imagine what life would look like if the problem no longer existed. Envisioning a world where the problem no longer exists and taking steps to resolve it can help improve mood. It can also help change the external circumstances that trigger the difficulties.
- 4. Change your body chemistry.
When we feel low, there is often a biological component to our mood. We can change that by changing our body chemistry. Remember TIPP, which stands for temperature, intense exercise, paced breathing, and paired muscle relaxation.
Try changing your body temperature by taking a cold shower or holding some ice cubes. You could also do some intense aerobic exercises like running. Belly breathing or watching a guided muscle relaxation video can also bring relief.
- 5. Cope ahead.
Sometimes a negative mood catches people off guard. Other times, people can anticipate it. When coping ahead, we teach ourselves how to prepare for what may be unpleasant and create a plan to get through the difficulty without becoming overwhelmed by the emotions that it evokes.
- 6. If students experience a particularly difficult season, should they tell their school? If so, what should they say?
When things are tough, students should tell their parents and together with their parents identify who at the school they may want to involve in the conversation. What to tell the school depends on the problem.
A student and their family may brainstorm about what support they may want in notifying the school. Are they going to ask for accommodations in completing homework? Extra time on a test because of anxiety? A special testing environment because of ADHD?
Schools can be helpful and responsive when they know what challenges students are facing.
- 7. How can parents best support these students?
Parents should listen to their child's difficulties. Children communicate their difficulties in different ways depending on their age. A seven-year-old often can't communicate to their parents that they feel depressed. Instead, they may show it in behaviors such as irritability, crying, or isolating from others. Teens may withdraw from others but also discuss feelings of anxiety or depression with an adult.
Parents should accept and validate their child's feelings. They should not try to talk them out of the feelings or otherwise invalidate them. Reassuring them that everyone feels this way sometimes and accepting the emotions can in and of itself be very healing for the child.
Insider Perspective: Pursuing My Education With a Mental Disorder
Blake LeVine is a life coach and author with a master's degree in social work from Adelphi University. A bipolar disorder survivor, Blake has been healthy since 2005. He knows the importance of managing mental illness and uses his experiences to help clients deal with conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
He wrote "Beating Bipolar: How One Therapist Tackled His Illness … and How What He Learned Could Help You."
Q. What Kind of Mental Health Issues Did You Have as a Student?
I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder. I was in and out of psychiatric hospitals for two years. It was tough. I missed a lot of school and had trouble with friendships. My family experienced a lot of pressure to find the right treatments to help me rebuild my life. I'm stable now, but it took me a long time to put my life back together.
Q. When Did the Disorder Start to Manifest?
It started to manifest in my teens. I showed the first signs of it around age 15 or 16. I had been doing well in my life and was high-achieving in high school. But things started to unravel. I had my first manic episode that required a hospitalization. I couldn't sleep. I was nervous about my health. I thought I was dying and ended up going to the emergency room.
A few weeks later, I was diagnosed with bipolar. It took two years to find the right treatment. Medicine and therapy would go well, but I'd fall back into an incident again.
Q. Did You Have a Hard Time Functioning Academically?
Before all of this happened, I was in advanced classes and I did well in school. After it happened, it was much harder to attend school. For a short time, I had to go to a special school for kids with special needs. I went from excelling in school to having to reintegrate into school again.
Q. How Did It Affect You Socially?
Before, I was confident and had many friends. Afterwards, I felt knocked down. I was worried that other kids would make fun of me, or if I wanted to date, people wouldn't want to date me because of the illness. I became insecure for a while. Part of what I needed to do in therapy was find the courage to make friends again, potentially start to date, and get ready to be an adult.
Q. What Words of Encouragement Would You Give to Students Struggling With Mental Illness?
When I was sick, I felt so alone and hopeless. I would tell a young person going through it that there are many people experiencing these issues. If you take the right steps, you can have a full life. I'm happily married, I have two children, I've been educated all over the world, and I've written six books.
If I had known when I was so sick that any of that would have happened, it would have kept me a lot more positive. I really believe that if you take care of your mental health, you can do anything you set out to do in life.
The key is to accept what you're facing and get help. I love that all the pain I went through is helping inspire people.
General Tips for Student Wellness
The following general tips may work in conjunction with professional help and group therapy to improve a student's overall mental health. Sometimes, small practices add up to make big differences.
Form Healthy Sleep Habits
It may seem hard to get adequate rest during busy college years. However, practicing good sleep hygiene can give the mind adequate rest. Aim for around eight hours per night. To prevent sleep distractions, avoid drinking fluids and bright screens around two hours before bed. Blackout curtains and a sound machine may also help. Forming a solid nighttime routine and waking up and going to bed at the same time every day helps.
Eat Nutritious and Consistent Meals
Science backs up the idea of brain food. Managing mental health in college involves eating an adequate amount of whole foods. Avoiding meals or eating empty calories depletes energy levels and may negatively impact a person's mood. Eating at the same time every day may also improve digestive health.
Exercise benefits physical health, but also mental health. In fact, exercise releases feel-good endorphins. Additionally, exercise can form an avenue for social interactions. Going on outdoor walks with friends may even increase low vitamin D levels. Healthy vitamin D levels may ease depression symptoms.
Try Meditation, Mindfulness, or Journaling Practices
Starting or ending the day with retrospection may improve mental health. Consider starting a gratitude journal or engaging in mindfulness exercises. Taking time to notice sounds on a walk can help people focus their minds more on the physical world and less on troubles. Yoga studios often lead guided meditations.
Find a Creative Outlet
A creative outlet allows for self-expression and mindfulness. Writing, painting, and taking photos may provide enjoyment and stress relief. Sharing meaningful art may help others with similar disorders feel less alone. The American Art Therapy Association publishes an Art Therapist Locator.
Talk to Your Peers
Opening up about mental health issues may turn feelings of isolation into feelings of connectedness. Whether talking with a trusted friend or participating in a support group conversation, connecting with peers can help. Students should only open up to safe people who can hold space for them.
Unplug from Technology
Seeing everyone's highlight reels on social media may amplify student mental health issues. Rather than devoting time to browsing everyone else's life updates, try taking some time off. Or, consider setting time limits on social media apps. People can replace the time they would normally spend on social media with a creative hobby or in nature.
Spending time helping others may take a person's mind off of their troubles. Making a positive difference in the community may help cultivate a more positive life outlook. Also, many volunteer opportunities offer a sense of camaraderie with fellow volunteers.
Apps That Promote Mental Health
Additional Resources for Students
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