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5 Tips for Managing College Student Mental Health

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Learn how untreated stress can contribute to mental health struggles for college students.

Medically Reviewed By:
Dr. Jaime Ballard

For many young adults, attending college or university is an opportunity to grow their mind, social circle, and understanding of the world and their place in it. College also means swapping the safety of home for a semester of change as you navigate your new routine. 

Regardless of whether you’ve flown across the country for school or are commuting just down the road, all of a sudden you’re faced with what seem like major life events such as choosing your career path or better understanding your finances. For the first time, you may find yourself living with a stranger or being propositioned with drugs and alcohol. For many college students, it's also the first time you'll have to manage stress–and its effect on your mental health–without direct family support.

Mental health issues are becoming increasingly prevalent among college students, but there are ways to help protect your mental wellbeing. Figuring out how to improve your mental health as a college student doesn't have to be challenging. Below we offer advice on how to manage stress and prioritize your mental health so that you can make the most of your college experience.  

Common mental health conditions among college students

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are becoming increasingly common among college students, according to a recent national study of students from 373 schools. 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, with the greatest increases in depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation observed in American Indian/Alaskan Native students.

According to Dr. Shlok Kharod, Psy.D. :“We have seen demand for mental health services skyrocket in recent years, and it 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.” Kharod, who oversees clinical outreach in Illinois for Charlie Health continues, “Social pressures, identity concerns, drugs and alcohol, social media, and more all are contributing to the increasing need for quality mental healthcare in higher education.” 

Another recent survey from the American College Health Association found that 24% of college students were living with serious psychological distress (17% of men, 25% of women, and 46% of transgender/gender non-conforming students). The 2021 survey of nearly 97,000 students also stated that:

  • 16% of men, 33% of women, and 55% of transgender students had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (generalized anxiety, social anxiety, panic disorder, or a specific phobia) at some point.
  • 14% of men, 26% of women, and 51% of transgender students had been diagnosed with a depressive disorder (major depression, persistent depressive disorder, or disruptive mood disorder) at some point.

These findings on student mental health are nothing new, however. 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.

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Consequences of untreated stress

Spotting the early signs of stress 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.

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:

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. 

Student stressed working on school work grabbing his nose

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 wellbeing. 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 among students.

An alternative to in-person therapy is online therapy, both through school wellness centers and through virtual outpatient programs. Online therapy can be a convenient option that allows students to have a consistent therapy experience from a location where they feel comfortable. 

Connect with Charlie Health and our community

For many young adults, college is their first chance to spread their wings and live on their own. Making this transition can be stressful so we’re here to let you know that there's no shame in seeking help. Whether you're looking for a safe place to start care or an extra support for an existing mental health condition, Charlie Health can help you learn coping skills to feel your best.

Ready to give it a try? Our compassionate, experienced team of clinicians is here to listen to your needs, answer your questions, and help you start the healing process today. 

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