One-third of college freshmen report experiencing mental health problems. Here's how to take some pressure off so you can not only survive but thrive in college.
I remember college fondly as the most transformative and fun time of my life. I experienced some of my worst heartbreaks, proudest triumphs, and most cringe-worthy mistakes. I also formed my most precious friendships. Now that I’m on the other side teaching, mentoring, and treating college students, I see just how challenging college can be. Academic demands are raised to a whole new level. And this is often the first time you're living away from home and having to be independent. The newfound freedom and responsibility are both intoxicating and intimidating. There are no more guard rails. All of this is hard enough, but if you're a college student who struggles with mental health, the college experience can be especially difficult, and even dangerous.
Mental health challenges are common for college students
A 2018 report from the World Mental Health Surveys International College Student project found that one-third of college freshmen reported experiencing mental health problems in the past year. Another large-scale study of over 150,000 college students found that in the past 10 years the percentage of students who have had a diagnosed mental health problem at some point in their lives increased from 22% to 36%.
The good news is that, during this period, stigma about mental illness has gone down. The bad news is that the rates of depression and suicidality have gone up. It’s very possible that the rates were always high and they’re just now being revealed because students are more willing to talk about their struggles.
More students are reaching out for help. But, of course, this isn't the end of the story.
This topic is especially close to my heart because of the tragic history of student suicides at my alma mater, Cornell University. During my junior year, there were six suicides within six months. It shook our community to the core. The data since then have been encouraging—more students are reaching out for help. But, of course, this isn't the end of the story.
Students of color are just as likely as white students to have mental health needs but are much less likely to seek help. September is National Suicide Prevention Month. It's a good time to think about the importance of setting up college students for optimal mental health while they pursue one of the most challenging endeavors of life.
4 things to do for your mental health in college
There are concrete ways to practice good mental health maintenance. And the good news is that they're not rocket science ... nor calculus, metaphysics, organic chemistry, or any of the other challenging subject for which you need an 800-page textbook. Whether you’re a college student or someone who cares about a college student—I’m looking at you, worried parents whom I’ve just terrified with these statistics—I’ve got do-able tips to practice or share.
1. Get connected
College is one of those weird ecosystems where it’s both the most social and most isolating experience in a young person’s life.
You're constantly surrounded by people in class, between classes, during meals, in your dorm room, and even in the bathroom. If you needed a moment just to be alone, you might have to climb to the top of the library stacks to the dusty comparative literature section. And even there, you might run into your TA grading your paper.
On the other hand, it’s lonely. You’re far from family. You’re far from that childhood friend who knows how you feel better than you do. Even the fun new friendships you make in the first few weeks of Freshman year are based on booze- and caffeine-fueled performances at ice-breakers and frat parties rather than intimacy and trust.
The key is to get socially connected but to value quality over quantity.
For someone introverted, homesick, experiencing imposter syndrome, or trying to manage depression or anxiety symptoms, this can be overwhelming. It can leave you feeling alone amidst the hubbub. You wonder why everyone else seems to have an easy time making friends while you're struggling to just keep smiling.
The key is to get socially connected but to value quality over quantity. You don’t have to make a ton of friends or join a dozen clubs. You just need a few people to feel comfortable with and get to know over time. Be authentic. If you’re a social butterfly, great! Use your energy to bring people together. If you’re a low-key person who prefers intimate conversations, no problem. You’re not the only one. You can find your people and gradually bond with them over time.
In addition to connecting with your peers, it’s good to connect with faculty, staff, and professional resources on campus, too. For example, there are academic resources like writing centers, tutoring, and workshops on time management. The last one is important because time management is a major predictor of not only academic success, but also mental health. That makes sense, doesn’t it? If you are able to study and do chores efficiently, you have more time to play, sleep, shower, call mom, and do other things that are good for your mental health.
Another essential but underused resource is the campus student health clinic, which usually has a behavioral or mental health department. Although there is often a shortage of licensed professional mental health providers on campuses, getting established with the behavioral health clinic is an excellent first step to getting support. Sometimes, universities even have a confidential peer counseling program where other students are trained to lend an empathetic ear and make appropriate referrals.
I’m making a special plea here for LGBT+ college students to heed Tip #1 because the statistics on teen and young adult suicide in these communities is tragically high.
Of course, don’t forget about student communities. LGBT+ student unions, for example, could be great to get involved in whether you’re out or exploring. Although this type of community support doesn’t necessarily replace mental health care, it can be a major antidote to feeling isolated. I’m making a special plea here for LGBT+ college students to heed Tip #1 because the statistics on teen and young adult suicide in these communities is tragically high. Nobody deserves to feel cut off from others. And you don’t have to, because you’re not alone! There is a community on campus for you.
2. Get moving
Exercise is the secret elixir to all health and happiness. It boosts mood, keeps you physically healthy, improves your sleep, helps you make friends.
In college, it’s sometimes easy to slide into a more sedentary lifestyle because nobody enforces a schedule of activities for you. With all of your competing priorities, exercise might fall to the wayside. But of all the priorities you do have, invest in exercise. It matters for so many domains of your life. One study showed that college students who engaged in high levels of physical activity, defined as working out at least three times per week, had lower levels of depression, anxiety, and general psychological symptoms. It’s not surprising that they also had better sleep.
3. Get enough sleep
Speaking of sleep, I bet you've already guessed that it's an important aspect of college mental health.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends at least 7-9 hours of sleep for young adults aged 18-25. I know how hard it is to make time for sleep in college, especially when there are so many other things you feel that you should be or could be doing. Is that chemistry midterm tomorrow? Better cram tonight! Is Joe having a Fortnite marathon down the hall? Gotta uphold my reputation. Is my new best friend having a long-distance relationship crisis? Gotta stay up and help her draft the perfect break-up text.
But are you really playing Fortnite at your best? No, because sleep deprivation slows your reaction time and your physical strength. Are you really helping your Chemistry grade? Not if you’re pulling all-nighters or regularly missing full nights of sleep, because sleep-deprived students do worse academically, even though they are paradoxically more confident about their performance. And are you really giving good relationship advice to your friend by staying up late with her? Not getting enough sleep makes college students worse at processing emotions, including feeling more negatively about neutral stimuli. So if you both sleep on it, you might realize tomorrow that those seemingly rude texts from her boyfriend were actually fine.
4. Know that your friends are doing "it" less than you think they are
The “it” I’m referring to includes drinking alcohol, doing drugs, and having sex.
Does it seem like everyone around you is partying so much harder than you? Everyone’s hooking up, experimenting with mind-opening substances, and hey, “it’s not alcoholism—it’s college,” right?
Make decisions based on what’s important to you, not on what you think others are doing. Isn’t the whole point of college to discover and construct your own adult identity?
Actually, a lot of research has shown that college students overestimate how much their peers are drinking, doing drugs, and having sex. And the more they thought their peers were engaged in these activities, the more they tried to match that imagined level. Not only that, but male college students thought that if a guy was concerned about drinking too much, it must mean he has trouble fitting in.
It's not a race, people! Take some pressure off. Many considerations can go into your lifestyle decisions. But please, make those decisions based on what's important to you, not on what you think others are doing. After all, isn't the whole point of college to discover and construct your own adult identity?
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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.