How to Take Care of Your Mental Health in CollegeWritten by Alicia Betz, reviewed by the EducationCorner.com Team
If there was ever a time you need to take care of your mental health, it’s when you go away to college. When you leave home and go to college, you’re facing new people, new experiences, new temptations, new stresses, new decisions... and no parents there to guide you and to make sure you’re doing okay. You’re on your own. It’s exciting, exhilarating, freeing, and terrifying all at once.
Even with a clear mind, it’s a lot and there is absolutely no shame in realizing that you need help with your mental health. Know yourself and be honest with yourself. If you’re not doing okay, sometimes it can be hard to admit it, especially when you’re at college. You’re supposed to be happy and free and finally get to make your own rules. It’s easy to drown your sorrows and anxiety in drugs and alcohol when you’re alone and your parents aren’t there to stop you any more. It’s also very easy to hide any issues with your mental health when you’re on your own. The longer you mask or ignore problems with your mental health, the worse they can become.
Anyone who is struggling with their mental health needs to know that there is nothing to be embarrassed about, and it’s actually pretty common, especially when you’re in college. A recent study by Penn State shows the trends in mental health and counseling among college students. The most common reason students seek help is for anxiety. In fact, 1 in 3 college freshmen struggle with mental health. You are not alone.
Some call the rising numbers of college students seeking help for mental health a crisis, but the real crisis lies in the fact that so many college students need help in the first place. Many colleges are working hard to put more support in place to help students transition to college and take care of their mental health even before it becomes a problem. The fact that students are reaching out and looking for help is a huge step in the right direction of advocating for destigmatizing mental illnesses. There is absolutely nothing weak or embarrassing about seeking help for your mental health.
During this new phase in your life, there is a lot on your plate and a lot is expected of you. According to clinical psychologist Gregg Henriques, today’s college students face more stress than any other generation of college students, and the numbers are rising. There are a lot of things you can do to take care of your mental health when you’re away at college. Continue reading to find some tips on things you can do, followed by specific information about three of the most common mental health issues college students face: depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Take Care of Your Body
One of the most important things you can do to protect your mental health is to take care of your body. Just because everyone talks about the freshman 15 doesn’t mean it’s normal or healthy. Just simply exercising and eating well can have a huge impact on your mental health. There have been many studies that have looked at the effects of a high sugar diet and mental health. In fact, according to Dr. David Sack M.D., a high sugar diet can contribute to depression, anxiety, and addiction, all three of which are common areas of struggle for college students.
Put Things in Perspective
College is hard and stressful. You would be hard pressed to find a person who has gone to college who doesn’t agree with that statement. One of the reasons it’s so stressful is because it’s the first time that school really, truly matters. When you keep things in perspective though, you realize that everything will be okay if you don’t do as well as you wanted to on your music theory exam. Yes, you need to do well in college, but you don’t have to be perfect. If the pressure of everything is building up, take a break; do what you need to do to relax and unwind, and remember that it will be okay if you let a few things slip here and there.
Even before you feel like you need it, you could benefit from talking to a therapist. There is so much change happening in your life when you enter college and talking to someone who is trained to help you through that change can circumvent a problem before it even happens.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking help for your mental health. If you are having trouble with your mental health, that could also quickly start to affect your grades. This could lead you to a downward spiral very quickly. Most schools make it really easy by having therapists and psychologists available right on campus.
An important thing to remember about seeing a therapist is that you might not find the right person right away. Your therapist should be someone you trust and who can help you through whatever you are dealing with. If the first one you meet doesn’t seem like a good fit, there is nothing wrong with finding another one.
Don’t Isolate Yourself
It can be tempting to put on a brave face and pretend everything is okay. Especially in today’s world where everyone is putting their best face forward on social media, it can seem like you are the only one who is struggling with their mental health in college. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, family members, roommates, professors, anybody who you feel comfortable talking to. The more you isolate yourself and tuck yourself away from the world, the easier it becomes to continue to do so.
Unfortunately, a lot of college students struggle with mental health so even though it may feel like you are alone, you’re not. You would probably be surprised at how many people can relate and are willing to help you. Go to class, check out the clubs your school offers, sit next to some people in the dining commons who look approachable, ask your roommate if they want to go for a walk… the opportunities to get out there and interact with people are endless in college. It can be really scary to start doing this when you feel lonely or sad, but generally college students are open minded and everyone there is exploring new friendships. It’s highly unlikely that trying to interact with other people will go badly, and if it does, then it does and you move on.
Take a Break
No matter what phase of your life you’re in, it’s imperative you take breaks for your mental health. If you keep running yourself into the ground, you will burn out. Whether you’re feeling isolated, depressed, lonely, manic… whatever it might be, you can almost always benefit from taking a break and getting outside. Sunlight has been proven to improve your mood, and it certainly isn’t going to hurt. Many colleges include an activity fee in the tuition, and this goes towards things like intramural sports, free movies, stress relief activities during finals, free or reduced price concerts and events, etc. You’re already technically paying for these things through your tuition, so you might as well take advantage of them!
These general tips can help with the majority of mental health issues students might face in college. It’s important to recognize if you are struggling with your mental health so that you can advocate for yourself and get the support you need. Continue reading to learn more specifics about three mental health problems that are prevalent among college students. These are meant to be informational and are in no way a substitute for diagnosis or treatment by a trained medical professional.
One of the previous tips was to put things in perspective and realize that it’s okay if you let a few things slide when you’re overwhelmed. If, however, you start to let everything slip and feel that nothing matters, that’s a red flag that you could be suffering from depression. The thing to remember about depression is that it’s not just one off day. Bad days happen. Depression becomes a worry when you consistently show the signs and symptoms.
How to Spot it
- Losing interest in activities
- Chronic fatigue
- Feeling worthless or like there is no point
- Inability to concentrate
- Sleep issues
- Thoughts of self harm or suicide
- Extreme weight loss or gain
- Isolating yourself
- Extreme sadness
What to do About it
If you suspect you are depressed, seek counseling and if you are having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately (1-800-273-8255). You can contact your primary care physician or the student health center at your college to set up an appointment with a therapist as well.
When depression hits, it can be very hard to see clearly and to understand how you could ever be happy again. It can even be hard to realize that you are in fact depressed. If someone comes to you and talks about depression, take them seriously.
In addition to seeking help, there are some other things you can do to help manage your depression:
- Spend time with animals
- Get outside
- Practice mindfulness
There are so many activities that can help you get out of your head and get your endorphins flowing as you work on treating your depression. Find what works best for you and turn to it anytime you need a pick me up.
It’s not surprising that college students tend to suffer from anxiety. So much is expected of you and this is the first time you’re figuring life out all on your own. Feeling stressed out and anxious about an upcoming exam or a job interview is normal. Anxiety becomes a problem when it’s chronic and when it interferes with your daily life.
How to Spot it
- Panic attacks
- Heart palpitations
- Overwhelming stress and fear
- Inability to concentrate
- Muscle tension
- Shortness of breath
- Upset stomach
What to do About it
If you think that your worry and anxiety goes beyond what is normal, seek professional help. A therapist can help talk you through irrationally anxious thoughts and can give you coping methods for dealing with your particular type of anxiety. If you think you may be having a panic attack but aren’t sure, go to the hospital. Panic attacks and heart attacks can manifest very similarly. The Anxiety Resource Center can also be very helpful in learning about and managing your symptoms. Some other strategies to cope with anxiety include:
- Slow, deep breathing
- Yoga and/or meditation
- Taking a bath
- Progressive muscle relaxation
Sometimes the root cause of addiction can stem from other problems, as people use substances or food to mask other issues. Especially if you are genetically predisposed to addictive behaviors, you could see this start to surface in college even if you’ve never struggled with addiction in the past. The fact that alcohol and drug use is so prevalent and normalized on college campuses can make it hard to recognize you have a problem. If you or someone close to you suspects you might be struggling with addiction, then it’s worth examining further. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction, in part, as “inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.”
How to Spot it
- Unexplained fear, anxiety, or paranoia
- Getting in trouble with the law
- Increased tolerance for substance
- Inability to function without substance
- Change in weight or appearance
- Missing classes or going to classes impaired
- Craving the substance
- Use of substance when inappropriate
What to do About it
As with any other mental health issue, you should seek help as soon as you or a loved one recognizes that this could be a problem for you. You can also call the National Drug Helpline at 1-888-633-3239. Addiction can manifest slowly or come on quickly, and some people, who are considered functioning alcoholics, are able to mask their addiction for a long time. Depending on the severity of your addiction, rehab might be a viable option for you. Some other helpful strategies for battling addiction include:
- Detox in a safe place such as a hospital or a treatment center
- Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous
- Find friends who don’t use the substance you are addicted to
- Replace your addiction with a different, healthier habit
- Practice mindfulness
Sometimes when you are struggling with your mental health, you tend to shut yourself away from the world, and this is especially easy to do when you start college. Your parents aren’t there to tell you to get outside or to make healthy meals for you. They’re not there to recognize the signs that you might be headed down the wrong path. You’re finally free and on your own, and it’s now your responsibility to take care of yourself. The stress and change creates the perfect storm for mental illness to manifest. The best thing you can do is be proactive about your mental health, and the second you start to suspect you have a problem, don’t delay in seeking help.
Mental Health Resources
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
National Drug Helpline 1-888-633-3239