College Students: Mental Health and Coping Strategies

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Stressed college students

College kids don’t talk about mental health much.

There’s a stigma… and that word “crazy” gets in the way.

The confidence of youth often clashes with the pain and shame of mental illness.

It keeps a student quiet and lonely and pretending too long that everything is fine.

Too many college students wait until it’s all too much, never once calling on counseling services or sharing the depth of their hopelessness.

They cope poorly. They leave school.

They suffer, feeling isolated and alone.

Having worked on college campuses as a mental health counselor, I have seen the under-utilizaiton of on-campus mental health centers.  Whether it is the result of the students not knowing the services are available or the fact that many students feel the need to handle their problems in secret or alone, they are not seeking the help they desperately need.

Yet, the numbers published in a recent survey conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors reveal just how common mental health problems are on college campuses:

  • 95% of college counseling center directors surveyed said increasing “significant psychological problems” among students is a growing concern on their campuses.
  • 75% of lifetime cases of mental health conditions present before age 24.
  • 1 in 4 people between 18 and 24 have a diagnosable mental illness.
  • Over 25% of college students have been diagnosed or treated for mental health issues during the previous year.
  • Nearly 42%  of college students cite anxiety as the most difficult mental health obstacle, followed by depression at just under 35%, and relationship concerns at about 36%.
  • 64% of college students who drop out for mental health reasons leave primarily due to depression, bipolar disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.
  • Depression and anxiety impacted academic performance negatively for 31% and 50% of surveyed college students, respectively.

College life entails a host of adjustments, transitions and relationships to be navigated. The pressures of young adulthood come with unique challenges. Students don’t have to feel like self-medicating, isolating or self-harming are the only ways to deal.

How can you or a student you know learn how to cope, thrive, and get the education and experiences you hope for?

  • Find help, get help, feel better.
  • School resources. Utilize campus clinics and counseling offices for help managing relationship conflicts, college and academic issues.
  • Community resources.Consider off-campus counselors if you have long-term therapy needs or require someone to prescribe and monitor medication.
  • Prep for health and success.
  • Think ahead about living, scheduling and social arrangements that will be the most beneficial to you during hard times.
  • Learn about your college’s academic requirements and services that might support academic growth and alleviate potential stressors
  • Reduce academic stress with strong time-management skills. Use academic services, study groups, and tutors to ease your workload. Make sure you plan well enough to avoid the stress of a backlog or assignment pile-up.
  • List symptoms, seasons and life events that appear to accompany your low moods; anticipate and prepare for their impact on your learning.
  • Maintain documentation you may need to share with your college regarding your health.
  • Develop clear language that accurately describes your mental health status, struggles or diagnosed illness.
  • If you take prescription meds, maintain your med schedule. Now is not the time to try to skip, skimp or do anything your doctor didn’t authorize.

Maintain and build support systems.

  • Connections with friends and family back home maintain roots and stability.
  • New relationships at school widen your pool of support and sense of belonging.

Be sure to practice good self-care.

  • Monitor mental illness symptoms. Notice significant changes in your eating or sleep pattern
  • Maintain healthy habits. Exercise, a balanced diet, and seven to nine hours of nightly sleep will keep you emotionally resilient.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol. Alcohol, marijuana and other drugs are poor ways to cope with stress and can exacerbate mental illness. Seek out drug-free, social activities you enjoy on campus.
  • Call a therapist if your symptoms steadily worsen; don’t wait to schedule a consultation.

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