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Top Tips for College Mental Health Success, According to Mental Health Professionals

September 7, 2023

8 min.

Expert-recommended tips for caring for your mental health when applying to college and as a college student—plus advice about what to do if you start to face mental health challenges during college.

By: Sarah Fielding

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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College can be an incredible time full of self-discovery, learning, and building life-long friendships. It’s the first chance for many to lead independent lives and set their own rules. This newfound independence, in addition to academic expectations, social dynamics, and distance from home, can tremendously impact mental health—in some instances, for the worse. A 2023 Gallup and Lumina Foundation study found that nearly half of bachelor’s students and over one-third of associate degree students report “frequently experiencing emotional distress.”

However, with the proper preparation and support, you can limit and cope with mental health challenges in college (and during the stress-inducing college application process). We spoke with several psychologists and culled a list of the best tips for protecting your mental health before and during college—plus advice on what to do if you struggle with mental health during college. Keep reading to learn expert-recommended tips for caring for your mental health as a college student. 

How to protect your mental health when applying to college

Taking care of your mental health can be part of your college prep, along with submitting college applications and filling out financial aid forms. Protecting your mental health during the college application process is particularly important for people with a mental health condition, as anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions can make the process more challenging. 

It’s important to remember, though, that everyone deals with challenges during the transition to college, says Dr. Dana Wang, a psychiatrist and the co-founder and CEO of RIVIA Mind. “It’s good to practice being gentle with yourself by allowing space for fear to rise and allowing extra time to take things at your own pace,” she says. Here are ways to prepare to protect your mental health as you write college essays, apply for financial aid, or once you’ve chosen a college and are preparing for the transition from high school. 

Build a support network

Having a group of people you can actively rely on—whether it be friends from high school, family, or mentors—can go a long way toward making you feel less alone as you prepare for your first year of college. “If you already know friends who will be attending college with you, invest in these friendships if they are healthy for you,” says Dr. Jasmine Kaur, a psychiatrist at Mindpath Health who has experience working with adolescents. “Practice spending time with your family regularly, which could include video or phone calls with them, especially if you tend to get homesick.”

Educate yourself

Learning about different mental health disorders can be really beneficial whether you already live with one or don’t have much experience with them. Angela Ficken, a psychotherapist with a Boston-based private practice, recommends learning warning signs and symptoms of poor mental health so you can recognize them if need be. 

Prepare coping strategies

Similarly, Kaur recommends coming up with a mental health game plan before getting to college. This isn’t the time to catastrophize, but logically think about what challenges may arise for you based on prior experiences. She recommends developing a “mental health first aid kit” where you list possible concerns, like homesickness or time management, and also generate coping strategies to turn to in each case. These tips might be as simple as knowing when to get more sleep. 

Be proactive

There are plenty of ways to familiarize yourself with your college before stepping on campus. On the socializing side, research what extracurricular activities exist (schools typically have a whole page on their website devoted to sharing information about each club). Also, join any groups on social media filled with incoming first-year or transfer students. At the same time, research what mental health resources your new school has available, from counseling to accommodations. Higher education is more than just what you learn in classrooms; it comprises all your experiences. Taking this time to get all the facts can help when you get to campus and are given tons of information. 

Practice a routine

College is a time when so many previous rules and restrictions are tossed out the window. If you go away to college, then you, for the most part, become the person in charge of yourself and getting through the day. This reality can be overwhelming at first, so it can help to practice this organizational skill beforehand, making sure to incorporate habits that benefit your well-being. “Self-care involves daily and weekly rituals that can significantly impact your overall well-being. These include a regular exercise routine, good sleep and nutrition, and making time for friends and family,” says Kaur. “It also includes cultivating hobbies or activities you enjoy, such as spending time in nature or cooking, which provide relaxation.” Building these habits ahead of time can help with your time management, study skills, and overall student success.

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How to prioritize your mental health in college

The shift from high school to college can feel jarring, to say the least. “Suddenly, there is a loss of structure and increased autonomy,” says Dr. Wang. “Up to this point, most of your life decisions have been made primarily by the adults in your life, so the increase in freedom might bring mixed feelings of delight and distress.”

Finding the balance of activities and rest that works best for you is critical to maintaining your mental health in college. As Ficken explains, it can sometimes feel like making your way across a tightrope. “It’s a feat that can be accomplished with a strategic approach and an understanding that your mental health is an integral foundation for your overall college success,” she says. “By adopting practices that promote equilibrium and adopting a proactive mindset, you can extract the utmost value from your college journey while nurturing your mental health along the way.” 

Discovering the best ways to prioritize your mental health might take some trial and error or even change as you move through college. With that in mind, here are experts’ top tips to set you up for mental health college success. 

Avoid comparison

In college, you’re surrounded by a whole new group of people than in high school, all with varying skill sets and interests. It’s easy to compare yourself to those around you — but this is never beneficial. “This comes out in different iterations regarding competing for GPA, internship, job offers, and popularity,” says Wang. “When prioritizing one’s mental health, it’s good to take a step back and check in to see if certain friendships you keep make you feel not good enough or enhance these fears.” Academic success can come easier when you set aside study time that works for you instead of feeling stressed about the other active minds around you. 

Evaluate what’s right for you

Again, there is no one right way to participate in college life. Following someone else’s plan for themselves or what you think you should be doing will typically leave you feeling unfulfilled. It’s also important not to overcommit yourself. “Getting the most out of college life does not mean that you have partied the most,” says Wang. “The feeling of missing out can be overwhelming because there is so much activity going on that one literally can not and should not partake in everything.” College is too short to stress about doing everything available. 

Set boundaries

Similarly, choosing what’s right for you often involves setting boundaries. These boundaries might include not taking on extracurricular activities just because your friend wants to join or saying no to going out or drinking. As Ficken says, it’s all about knowing and maintaining your limits. Setting a boundary might seem like a simple task, but the key to its success is practice. 

Identify signs your mental health is worsening

Yes, sometimes you’ll just have a bad day, or an anxious thought will creep up on you. What’s important is to look for signs that your mental health is worsening as a whole. Have you found that those depressive thoughts aren’t going away? Did you have a panic attack and worry about having another one? There is no marker you need to cross to validate seeking mental health help. There are a few avenues you can explore if you notice an adverse change in your mental health. 

A trio of college students who are prioritizing their mental health stand in front of a campus building holding backpacks and books and smiling.

What to do if you experience mental health challenges in college

Sometimes, regardless of what steps you take, your brain doesn’t work the way you want it to. “Despite your best efforts, there might be times when the challenges you face seem insurmountable, and your mental health falters,” says Ficken. “During these moments, remember that seeking help is not only acceptable but a commendable step towards self-care.”

Keep reading to review a range of worthwhile steps if you experience poor mental health at college. 

Speak with trusted friends and loved ones

It can be scary, but speaking to family members or friends about your mental health experience can remove some of the weight you’re carrying and help you brainstorm the best steps to take moving forward. Wang recommends seeking out a peer support network on campus or contacting your resident advisor (RA) right down the hall. The latter can be especially helpful if any stress comes from your living situation.  

Seek out healthcare services offered at your college

Typically, colleges will have mental health services available for students. These services are usually included for full-time students — at the minimum. “Many colleges also have physicians, including a general practitioner or psychiatrist, who can rule out medical conditions that might impact your mental health, help diagnose a mental health condition, and provide management of these,” adds Kaur. All in all, each of these professionals should have training on student mental health. 

Pursue academic accommodations as necessary 

Academic success is important, but your school might offer accommodations if you need more time to complete your work due to mental health reasons. This might involve something like switching to an online class or pushing the due date of a homework assignment to give you more study time. Consider speaking with a faculty advisor or someone you trust who works in an administrative office to learn more about these policies.

Explore external care

Whether it be due to a waitlist or a session limit, your school’s resources might not be able to do everything you need. In this case, Ficken says exploring other options, such as an off-campus mental health provider or a crisis hotline, can be beneficial — especially if you need urgent support.

Mental health support for college students at Charlie Health 

If you want to learn skills to take care of your mental health at college, Charlie Health can help. Our compassionate mental health professionals are here to listen to your story, understand your needs, and match you with an appropriate treatment plan that fits into your college schedule.

Charlie Health’s personalized virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people, including college students, who are dealing with various complex mental health challenges. Fill out our quick assessment to get started today.

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