What do you need to know about college mental health? During a time of stress, change, and new experiences, it’s important to start thinking about managing your own mental health.
Included here, you will find some context, research, and a few suggestions to help you stay informed and proactive about your mental health as you begin your higher education experience.
Young adulthood is an exciting stage in human development. Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade, describes it as a “developmental sweet spot.” As growth advances, so does curiosity and perspective-taking. Young adults are still trying out new behaviors and ideas as in adolescence, but are doing so more thoughtfully and maturely, while also crystallizing their identity. Energy, health, and cognitive processes are either at a peak or heightened during this period, so exploration in academics, attachment, and vocation is an inspiring time.
All of this, combined with the incubator that can be the college campus, sets the stage for an opportunity to form healthy habits and positive coping skills that will last into adulthood. However, as you’re thrust into an environment that entails independence, rigorous academic study, and pressure from peers, you’ll become even more familiar with that six-letter word we all know so well: stress.
The Stakes Are Very High.
In addition to developmental changes and increased stress, this is the stage of life when college students may begin to experience a mental health condition for the first time. We know that anxiety continues to be the top presenting concern among college students (affecting nearly 1 in 6), followed by depression, relationship problems, and adjustment/transition issues. The unpredictability and uncontrollability of the college experience is a significant trigger for stress and anxiety.
About 75% of all mental health conditions start by age 24. College often falls right in the middle of this vulnerable time.
Because this developmental stage is such a “sweet spot” for success and opportunity, minding your mental health is mission critical, and college counseling centers are here for support. The transition from high school to college can be overwhelming and exciting as everything inevitably changes. Remember that regardless of how you feel right now, feelings are temporary and constantly changing, just like you. Change can bring about new emotional and mental health experiences, and it’s important that you recognize warning signs for yourself or your friends, and that you know how to get help. As we continue to fight the mental health stigma, more and more students are seeking help for distress that they no longer have to hide, are not alone with, and will not be judged for.
The sooner, the better.
So, you may recognize that being stressed or feeling “blue” can be normal and something everyone experiences. How do you know when it’s time to seek help?
The simplest answer: when the distress you experience due to the stressors in your life begin to affect your ability to function as you would like to on a daily basis.
We see the stress of many students quickly turn into anxiety attacks, absences from class, relational conflict, and slipping grades. These students may try to shake it off or become too afraid to say anything about the downward spiral they’re experiencing out of fear of being judged.
When mental health spirals downward, mattering matters.
Now they’re isolated. Next, unsuccessful attempts at coping may come into the picture, like excessive use of alcohol or other drugs, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts. Cue an unwelcomed blow to self-worth, along with risky behavior that endangers safety of self.
This is a critical point where reaching out and trusting you’ll be met with care, acceptance, and help is so important. Or it’s the time when you show your friend you’ve got their back and that they matter by connecting them with a counselor. When mental health spirals downward, mattering matters. Belonging, community, support, meaning, purpose, connection – these are life boats. Do what you can to get in one, or help a friend or classmate out of the water. Again, your counseling center is here to help. We care about your emotional and mental health.
Be proactive instead of reactive.
Want to get ahead of that downward mental health spiral? Nurture your mental health. Good mental health involves examining and choosing values that are important to us, and living a life that reflects and promotes these values in some way each day—while also learning how to experience, witness, and make good use of all the stress that comes our way. It’s actually more important to learn how to effectively navigate your relationship to and your experience of stress, rather than trying to change an unavoidable stressful situation. This is the kind of work counselors can help you with. Remember, there’s never a right or wrong reason to seek counseling.
Here are some ways to take a proactive approach to nurture your mental health, in addition to seeking counseling:
Fight the Stigma.
Stigma can cause people to feel ashamed and judged, and to confuse feeling bad with being bad. You aren’t “weak” or “bad” for seeking help. By reaching out for help you show that you are strong, wise, and dedicated to your well-being. If you were experiencing constant headaches, you would probably go to the health center to get it checked out. It’s just as important to seek help for distressing thoughts, feelings, or behaviors you begin to notice. Let’s create an environment that encourages people to reach out for support when they need it by practicing kindness and empathy. A lot of people suffer in silence. Help change the perception around mental health counseling by speaking positively about it, using sensitive language, and actively listening when others are being vulnerable.