College should be a time of discovery, freedom and independence. But sometimes those perks of the college experience can become a source of mental distress. Students can also struggle with mental health issues they bring with them to college. College can still be a time of growth and independence if students attend to their mental health and get help when they need it.
Challenges of College Life
College comes with a certain amount of performance anxiety and fear of the unknown. Students who performed well in high school sometimes face new kinds of academic challenges. There is enormous pressure to perform well against the backdrop of high tuition and student debt.
The safety net of parental supervision is now gone. Students have long hours they must structure on their own. Getting enough sleep or limiting social time may be difficult with undeveloped time management skills. Students may lack the maturity to handle academic failures or make wise decisions about alcohol and substances.
College Mental Health by the Numbers
There are 20 million college students in the US. The most prevalent mental health issues affecting them are anxiety and depression.
In the American College Health Association’s survey of 50,000 students at 75 colleges, about a quarter of respondents had been diagnosed at some time with anxiety or panic disorders. In the last year, 75% saw a professional for, or were diagnosed with, anxiety. Rates for depression were roughly the same. Other conditions that affected students included PTSD, ADHD, eating disorders, bipolar disorders, insomnia, addiction, borderline personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
About half the respondents said they had experienced loneliness. Nearly 40% cited stress as a factor that hindered their academic performance, along with sleep difficulties (23%). Other stressors included money, relationships (with intimates and roommates), bullying, microaggression, stalking, and sexual harassment and assault.
In Pennsylvania State University’s most recent study of college students seeking mental health treatment, depression and anxiety were also the most common concerns. Depression has continued to increase over the last few years, while anxiety has leveled off. Rates of treatment for alcohol or drug use have fallen over the past eight years (from 5% to 2.8%), while rates for non-suicidal self-injury have risen (from 22% to 28%). According to drugabuse.gov, binge drinking has dropped below 30% for the first time.
Students sometimes arrive at college with mental health issues. The new, added challenges of college life can exacerbate those issues or cause relapse. Young adulthood is also the peak onset period for many mental health disorders, which students may experience for the first time during college.
“Roughly half of all lifetime mental disorders… start by the mid‐teens and three‐fourths by the mid‐20s.”Kessler, et al.
COVID-19 and Mental Health
Today’s student generation has higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression compared to previous generations. They’ve been exposed to the trauma, through the media or firsthand, of school shootings, an uncertain economy and unsettling social conflict.
With the onset of the pandemic, stress has risen and along with it, mental health needs. Rates of depression have increased, yet 60% of students say the pandemic has made it harder to access mental health services. Students are experiencing increased financial stress and more pronounced inequalities. A third of students have had to change living situations. The majority of students are concerned that they or people they care about will get COVID-19. That’s a lot to cope with.
Mental Health and Suicide
The Centers for Disease Control report that between 2009 and 2018 suicide rates rose roughly 50% among 15- to 24-year-olds. In Penn State’s survey, 36% of students who sought treatment from campus services had seriously considered suicide at some time in their lives, and 10% had attempted suicide.
Students who are suicidal often express their intent to others, directly or indirectly. Among others, warning signs include giving away prized possessions, increased use of alcohol or drugs, marked withdrawal or rage, and talking about being a burden to others. Unchecked depression carriers a serious risk of escalating into suicidal thoughts and actions.
Students who are concerned about themselves or a friend should get help immediately from their campus counseling center and keep the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) stored in their phones. Staying in contact with a friend in need, or reaching out to trusted friends or family when in need, can be a lifesaver.
Between 2009 and 2015, college students increased their use of campus counseling centers 30–40%, even though student enrollment increased only 5%. More students are seeking help, and that trend has continued.
Even though crisis services have increased, students must sometimes wait days or weeks for appointments. Some students give up or rationalize that problems will go away on their own. Some fear that they will have to leave school. But not getting help may increase that possibility.
Colleges are adding options for students seeking help, such as group therapy, anxiety workshops, yoga and student-led counseling. Many colleges post resources online. For example, Northwestern University provides a webpage page devoted to mental health and COVID-19, with links to national resources and health and wellness apps. The state of North Carolina posts COVID-19 resources for higher education, including tips on Internet access and cybersecurity for remote learning.
Just over half the students who sought psychological help within the past year received services from campus providers. With some overlap, about a third got help from local community providers, and 42% got help from hometown providers.
It’s important to seek help early for mental health issues. Whether you’re a student or the parent of a student, our counselors are trained to help you evaluate and address your mental health needs to make college years productive and gratifying ones.
How We Can Help You?
Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling is here to help you have a better day and find a better way. We treat a wide range of psychiatric conditions for both children and adults. Contact us today, we’re ready to help: