“It’s okay to not know exactly what you want to do with your life. College is an opportunity to learn more about yourself. Discover what you enjoy, what you dislike, your strengths and weaknesses, and find out what motivates you,”
-Alexandra Malin, LMHC and Clinical Supervisor with HBH
As the start of another school year approaches, college students across the country wave goodbye to their home for the first time, while others prepare to graduate and start real adult life.
For many students, college is an exciting opportunity to explore different areas of interest, expand your social bubble, and deepen your understanding of the world, and how you fit into it.
It can also be an intimidating transition to live independently, without the structure and support you’re used to.
The flood of increased academic demands, social opportunities, and extracurricular activities that students are faced with calls for special attention to your emotional and mental wellbeing.
To navigate the demands ahead, it’s vital to know how to take care of your mental health and how to deal with unwanted/overwhelming feelings. It’s just as important to know when it’s time to seek support from a mental health professional.
In this blog, you’ll learn the challenges often associated with mental health in college, and how to support your mental health and wellness using practice tips shared by our clinicians at HBH.
Mental health challenges in college are common:
If you’re struggling with your mental health before you head off to college, or if you encounter a challenge while you’re on campus, you are not alone.
According to the Healthy Minds survey published earlier this year, more than 60 percent of college students meet the criteria for at least one mental health condition. Specifically,
- 44% of students reported traits of depression
- 37% reported traits of anxiety
- 15% reported signs of suicide ideation
While most students experience feelings of stress and anxiety to some degree during their college years, an anxiety disorder differs from stress in that traits like worry, panic, and/or physical discomfort are more intense, frequent, and persistent as the pressures of life situations lessen.
There are many different types of anxiety disorders, including:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): excessive worry or fear about different everyday life events that is difficult to control
- Social Anxiety Disorder: an intense and persistent fear of unfamiliar social or performance situations
- Phobia: an intense fear of a specific situation/object that causes frequent distress. It can lead to disruption in routines, relationships, and activities
- Panic Disorder: sudden and intense episodes of fear and anxiety that often occur without warning
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): a pattern of unwanted thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to perform repetitive behaviors (compulsions). It can interfere with daily activities and cause significant distress
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): may develop in the wake of a traumatic life event, like a serious accident, or sexual or physical assault. PTSD is diagnosed when symptoms last for more than a month following the event. Symptoms can include avoidance or distress at the reminder of the trauma, recurring images of the event, feelings of numbness and detachment, having nightmares and sleep difficulties.
Lack of sleep, poor eating habits, not enough exercise, failed relationships, deadlines, exams, and piles of homework, financial worries, and the pressure to know what you want to do after college- many areas of college life can contribute to risk factors of depression.
Students struggling with depression may experience a range of traits, including:
- Low energy
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Constantly feeling sad, hopeless, and/or worthless
- Difficulty concentrating
- No longer interested in activities you normally enjoy
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Thinking about death and/or suicide
Depending on the severity of depression among students, individuals might have trouble succeeding with their academics, and navigating their social relationships in school.
Spotting the warning signs of stress:
Spotting the early warning signs of stress can be instrumental in protecting both your mental health, and the wellbeing of your peers.
Stress typically involves psychological and physical traits, such as:
- Anger, irritability, or mood swings
- Changes in behavior
- Changes in eating habits (eating too much/too little)
- Changes in sleep habits
- Getting sick more often than usual
If you notice any of these warning signs in your peers, it’s crucial that you reach out, remind them that they are not alone, and encourage them to seek support.
If you suspect that a college student is in immediate danger, seek emergency medical help immediately.
Practice tips for taking care of your mental health in college:
Finding your footing at college takes time.
With the proper self-care practices, students can be proactive about supporting their mental health and prepared for the hurdles ahead.
- Avoid Isolating Yourself
Cari Chapderlane-Cox, LICSW and Clinical Supervisor with HBH recommends focusing on making positive social connections at college.
“Positive social support can be crucial to good mental health,” says Cari.
While the transition to college may be difficult for some individuals, who for the first time are experiencing a new environment with a new set of people, it’s important to focus on making friendships.
Cari suggests that students take the opportunity to connect with people outside of the classroom, through joining a club or social group on campus.
“These are great ways to find like minded people and build a network of positive social support. This focus on socializing can reduce feelings of isolation which may lead to an increase in depressive symptoms,” says Cari.
- Implement Grounding Practices
Kelly Corrao-Fisher, LMHC with HBH suggests creating a “pocket pal,” that can help with feelings of anxiety or a sudden panic attack.
Kelly says that students can start by creating a “note” on their phone with helpful tips to stay grounded in the present moment.
List what’s helpful, for example:
- You’re safe, it is ok to feel anxious or sad
- Take a deep breath
- Seriously, deep breath
- (Personalize a coping strategy here; calling someone, counting, chewing gum, etc)
- (Some random fun fact)- it helps distract
- Get back out there, you got this!
The “pocket pal” can be easily used anywhere, and is customizable to the individual’s needs.
- Seek Outside Support
Greg Handel, PhD and Clinical Supervisor with HBH recommends connecting with a counselor on your college campus early, before you arrive on campus.
There’s so much happening in your life when you enter college that having a trained therapist to talk to can help you navigate the changes, and circumvent a challenge before it arises.
It may be necessary to seek outside support, if your college’s counseling center develops a wait list.
- Check to see if your college counseling center provides off-campus referrals for providers
- Make a list of providers to have on hand before arriving at school
- Familiarize yourself with your insurance plan to see what type of coverage it provides
For students who currently work with a therapist, or those who’ve worked with a therapist in the past, Greg says to continue implementing the grounding exercises they learned in session.
- Have Self-Compassion
Alexandra Malin, LMHC and Clinical Supervisor with HBH reminds students to have self compassion.
“It’s okay to not know exactly what you want to do with your life. Despite the pressure we feel from external sources like parents, friends, society, it is ok to be undecided,” says Alexandra.
Take this opportunity to learn more about yourself: what you enjoy, what you dislike, discover your strengths and weaknesses, and find out what motivates you.
“Taking the time to focus on yourself will lead to improved quality of life in the future,” says Alexandra.
Rather than comparing yourself to others, instead offer yourself the time and space to explore! Alexandra says this will improve your overall mood, reduce anxiety, and lead to increased self-efficacy.
- Self-Care Habits and Routines
Sarah Presson, LICSW and Clinical Supervisor says that it’s important for students to practice self-care habits in order to navigate the abundance of social, extracurricular, and academic related activities that college brings.
Self-care habits can include:
- Regularly exercising
- Getting enough sleep
- Enjoying a relaxing activity that’s right for you
- Reaching out to friends and family
- Feeding your body healthy foods
- Cutting down on social media/screen time
- Showing kindness to yourself and others
Making the transition to college, and navigating the ebbs and flows of the semesters can be exciting, joyful, stressful, challenging, and everything in between.
Learning how to support yourself, and taking the proactive steps to take care of your wellbeing will make your college experience the fulfilling, authentic, and enjoyable experience that you deserve.
At HBH, we’re here to remind you that there’s no shame in seeking help.
Whether you’re looking for a safe space to start your mental health journey, or looking for extra support for an existing mental health condition, we’re here for you.
Our compassionate and experienced team of trained mental health professionals offer counseling services to individuals all over the state of Masscahusetts.
Contact us today at (413) 343-4357 and we will help you find the support that you need!