College Mental Health Matters

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.

It's Developmental.

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:

  • Don’t believe everything you see on social media. By now this is something we all know in theory, but it can be hard to put into practice. Even though almost all college students use social media, nearly 60% of students reported feeling lonely in the past year, according to the 2016 National College Health Assessment. So, be slow to judge the polished picture-perfect stories you see on social media, and connect to someone in person in a meaningful way instead.
  • Practice self-compassion. Value yourself as a human being worthy of love. Treat yourself with kindness and respect. Instead of criticizing parts of you that you judge “not good enough,” lovingly acknowledge and accept those parts of yourself. Ask yourself what these parts need and how you can help. Show yourself the compassion you would show a friend.
  • Get involved. Remember the mushy stuff up there about belonging? Build yourself a community that supports you. They’re out there waiting for you in activities, teams, and clubs.
  • Care for your physical health. The mind and body? They’re linked. So, make sure you’re developing sleep habits that work for you and keep you calm, clear, and resilient against sickness. Stay active by devoting time for exercise. This doesn’t have to be in a gym (that life is definitely not for me!). You can find a sport or activity you can get involved in on campus. The endorphins you gain will help your mental health, the friendships you’ll gain will help foster belonging, and the physical exercise will help you sleep better. The cherry on top? Eating healthy. Research shows that serotonin (the happy hormone) is also found in the gut, so be intentional with what goes in there.
  • Take advantage of campus resources. They’re free. It’s a super deal. And the people who work in Higher Ed love mentoring, supporting, and working with college students. Whether that’s in a counseling session, in a career advising appointment, or in the academic support office, there are so many opportunities to get the support you need.
  • Self-care and coping. This can be external and action-oriented, or internal. For example, external things you can do for self-care are yoga, running, listening to music, watching a good movie, taking a bubble bath, or any other healthy, enjoyable things you’ve discovered that help you relax. Internal self-care can be things like trying not to compare yourself to others, scheduling time for you to worry and then let it go, setting realistic expectations and boundaries for yourself, and connecting with spirituality or practicing mindfulness.
  • Volunteer. Give your time and energy to help someone else and find connection. It’s a great way to turn your focus outward instead of inward. The perspective is just an added bonus.

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.

If you’re interested in learning more about the college transition and college mental health, here are a couple of good websites to peruse: www.jedfoundation.org and www.transitionyear.org

1 Comment. Leave new

  • Avatar
    Karen Elizabeth Smith
    August 25, 2018 2:43 AM

    Yes, Yes, and Yes! There are so many important things here. And such a good point that we need to take care of ourselves AND be looking out for the folks around us. It is a better world when we are connected with each other.

    Reply

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