Table of Contents
Attending college or university can be an opportunity to grow your mind, social circle, and understanding of the world and your place in it. However, for many, college also means swapping the comforts of home for a new routine—and with that change can come mental health challenges.
Studies show that mental health issues are becoming increasingly common among college students, but the good news is there are ways to protect your mental well-being. Below, we offer advice on how to manage stress and prioritize your mental health as a college student so you can make the most of your college experience.
Tips for taking care of your mental health
Finding your groove at school may take a bit of time. Below are some of Charlie Health’s top tips for addressing stress and other mental health challenges as you navigate college life:
Create a self-care routine
Start small with one mental health commitment
Think about what you want beyond graduation
Know when and where to find mental health support
1. Create a self-care routine
Between classes, clubs, and creating new friendships, it can be tough to find the time to prioritize self-care, but a healthy routine is key to maintaining positive mental health. Self-care is all about taking time to focus on yourself so that your body and mind have an opportunity to rest. Exercising, sleeping, journaling, and eating a balanced diet are all simple ways to help build resilience
2. Start small with one mental health commitment
If incorporating an entire self-care practice into your routine sounds more stressful than helpful, try starting small. Maybe this means taking a morning walk on your college campus to improve concentration and reduce anxiety. Perhaps you reduce your caffeine intake in order to feel less jittery and help you sleep better. It could be as basic as making a point to shower and get dressed for the day each morning. The goal is to foster small but significant habits that support your mental and physical health so you’re prepared to tackle whatever comes your way.
3. Stay organized
Organization can help students to feel in control of their circumstances and environment. When it comes to schoolwork, use a planner to keep track of important assignments, due dates, and project milestones so that you don’t find yourself stressing over the uncertainty of deadlines. A planner can also help you manage extracurriculars and allows you an opportunity to schedule in some “me time” throughout the week as well.
4. Think beyond graduation
For the first time, the U.S. Surgeon General is advising Americans to think about how the workplace can influence their mental health. The guidance reviews how long hours and limited autonomy can disrupt sleep and lead to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. When thinking about your career path and job prospects, consider pursuing growth opportunities that prioritize community, work-life balance, protection from harm, and employee involvement in workplace decisions.
5. Know when and where to find mental health support
Sometimes self-care alone isn’t enough to help college students adjust to their new surroundings and manage their stress. That’s where therapy can help. Whether it’s homesickness, social anxiety, or something more severe, speaking with a mental health professional is a great way to unpack your feelings, better understand symptoms, and find ways to cope.
Common mental health conditions among college students
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are becoming increasingly common among college students, according to a 2021 national study of students from 373 schools published in the Journal of Affective Disorders. During the 2020-2021 school year, more than 60% of college students met the criteria for having a mental health issue. This means that the number of students with mental health conditions nearly doubled between 2013 and 2021.
Mental health conditions among college students, though, aren’t experienced equally. According to the study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, the greatest increases in depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation were observed in American Indian or Alaskan Native students—highlighting racially-based mental health disparities seen nationwide. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or are in danger of harming yourself, this is a mental health emergency. Contact The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline 24/7 by calling or texting 988.
Charlie Health Editorial Team
Another 2021 survey from the American College Health Association found that 24% of college students were living with serious psychological distress, with rates highest (46%) in transgender and gender non-conforming students. By contrast, 25% of students assigned female at birth and 17% assigned male at birth reported serious psychological distress. Also, over half of transgender students had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (generalized anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorder, or a specific phobia) or depressive disorder (major depression, persistent depressive disorder, or disruptive mood disorder) at some point. These trends follow nationwide findings that the LGBTQIA+ community is at higher risk for mental health struggles.
“We have seen demand for mental health services skyrocket in recent years, which makes sense. College can be a difficult enough adjustment for many as it is, but consider the fact that young people are faced with more stressors than ever before and are struggling to navigate the demands of life as such,” said Dr. Shlok Kharod, who oversees clinical outreach in Illinois for Charlie Health. According to Dr. Kharod, social pressures, identity concerns, drugs and alcohol, and social media are just some of the factors contributing to the increasing need for quality mental healthcare in higher education.
College student mental health issues aren’t exactly new, though. Research conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) nearly a decade ago shows that 73% of students experience some sort of mental health crisis during college. The reasons varied, but common triggers included:
- Feelings of anxiety, panic, and depression about school or life
- Difficulty adjusting to a new environment, routine, and course load
- Feeling lonely, isolated, or homesick
- Post-traumatic stress disorder episode triggered by class content
- Medications stopped working
It’s also worth noting that similar mental health trends have been observed in college-aged individuals who aren’t attending school. According to a 12-month study of more than 40,000 people ages 19-25 years, nearly half of college-age individuals had a psychiatric disorder in the past year, with similar rates observed in college-attending individuals and their non-college-attending peers.
Consequences of untreated stress
Spotting the early signs of stress (a condition commonly observed among college students) can be instrumental in protecting your mental health and preventing additional mental health conditions. Stress affects everyone differently, but it typically involves a combination of psychological and physical symptoms, such as:
- Anger, irritability, and mood swings
- Changes in behavior
- Changes in eating habits
- Changes in sleep habits
- Getting sick more often
When left untreated, chronic stress can lead to serious mental health conditions. Long-term stress is known to increase the risk of anxiety, depression, substance use, sleep problems, and even suicide. Stress can take a toll on your physical health as well, leading to medical problems such as high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, heart disease, and digestive disorders later in life.
What are the challenges in accessing mental health services?
College wellness centers and counseling services are a great place to find counseling, student support organizations, and other services to support your health and well-being. However, although many colleges offer health and wellness services on campus, accessing care at these centers can be challenging.
Data from more than 700 college and university counseling centers found that the number of students looking for care at campus counseling centers increased nearly 30% between 2009 and 2015. According to a survey by Fortune, just three out of 10 college students who received counseling have used on-campus services. Common concerns for university counseling centers are long wait times, a lack of diversity among staff, and not enough staff to meet the rising needs of students.
An alternative to in-person therapy is online therapy, both through school wellness centers and through virtual providers. Online therapy can be a convenient option that allows students to have a consistent therapy experience from a location where they feel comfortable.
Mental health support for college students at Charlie Health
If you’re a college student struggling with your mental health, you’re not alone. Charlie Health is here to help.
Our intensive outpatient program (IOP) supports young people with complex mental health conditions and their families—including college students. Whether you’re dealing with anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition, our expert clinicians are here to support you. Charlie Health’s personalized IOP combines individual therapy, group sessions, and family therapy to offer holistic support for people needing more than once-weekly therapy. Also, since our services are fully virtual, you can heal from home (or college) while maintaining your usual schedule.