Mental Health in College: The Importance of Therapy

Stressed out college student

The brain may only weigh approximately three pounds, yet it has been considered to be one of the universe’s most complicated structures. With its 86 billion neurons, it is responsible for the fact that you can read this article. We still don’t understand how it all works. Despite this, we occasionally feel embarrassed when this organ’s complex functioning fails. We make the mistake of assuming that no one else is unhappy, nervous, or sad, and we choose to ignore our symptoms rather than tell someone how we are feeling.

Mental illness stigmatization from our society adversely affects our disclosure of it to others so it keeps going like a never ending vicious cycle.

The truth is that your brain, like any other component of your body, may get ill. There’s nothing wrong with that. And don’t worry if you are having mental difficulties: you’re not alone. It’s been labeled an “epidemic” because so many young adults are suffering, but the good news is that there are numerous options available to assist you in feeling better.

Continue reading to learn why it’s critical to maintain your mental health in college and what you can do to help yourself.

The link between stress and mental health

Stress is a natural response to change or situations that we perceive to be dangerous. It can be linked to both pleasant and negative situations (marriage, birth, exams, financial worries, job loss, death of a loved one, etc.).

It’s critical to understand that how you feel about a situation significantly impacts stress, which in turn impacts your mental health. A stressful scenario for one individual may not be distressing for another, and vice versa. Individual differences exist in the causes and degree of stress.

Irritability or aggression, a sense of loss of control, insomnia, fatigue or exhaustion, sadness or tears, concentration or memory issues, and more are all symptoms of stress and of course this directly affects college performance.

Chronic stress can lead to depression, anxiety, and burnout, among other issues. Good stress management enhances your mental and physical well-being.

Some people are more likely to develop depression and anxiety as a result of chronic stress. The precise processes that relate stress to mental illness are still being studied.

Scientists discovered that the brain’s first response to stress occurs within seconds of detecting a’stressor.’ Neurotransmitters (chemicals that communicate between nerve cells) are released. Serotonin and adrenaline are two of them. Stress hormones are then released, affecting parts of the brain that are important for memory and emotion regulation. The ability of these systems to control the stress response is altered by repeated stress.

Researchers are also looking at how these systems are involved in anxiety and depression, implying that stress and mental disease are linked biochemically. Long-term stress has been proven in recent research to alter the anatomy of the brain.

Tips on managing stress

Reducing the emotional symptoms of stress starts with reducing the sources of stress in your life.

The American Institute of Stress explains that while there are a variety of stress-reducing techniques, finding ones that work for you is important.

Physical activities such as running, jogging, and aerobics are a great way to physically relieve stress and tension.

Relaxing physical activities such as yoga or tai chi can help to work your body while relaxing your mind.

Mindfulness techniques such as meditation can strengthen your emotional responses to stress.

Reducing stress in different areas of your life, when possible, can help to lessen your exposure to chronic stressors.

Mobile apps may calm your mind and offer guided conversations to help you manage stress and anxiety.

College student suffering from mental illness

Why are mental illnesses more prominent in college?

College students have a high rate of mental health issues . This could be related to the fact that for many traditional and non-traditional undergraduate students, college is a difficult period. Traditional college students enter after graduating from high school, are often younger, rely on their parents for financial assistance, and do not work full-time or part-time.

As a result, in addition to academic stress, these students may be faced with the job of taking on more adult-like responsibilities without having mastered the skills and cognitive maturity of adulthood yet.

For example, many typical college students may be confronted with potentially stressful events for the first time, such as working, being in a serious relationship that could lead to marriage, or living with roommates from other cultures and belief systems different from their own.

Non-traditional college students are often employed full-time, older, and may have dependents other than their spouses. Thus, this group of students may have to cope with meeting work and family demands in addition to academic requirements.

In these contexts, many college students may experience the persistence, exacerbation, or first onset of mental health and substance use problems while possibly receiving no or inadequate treatment.

With the increasing recognition of child mental health issues and the use of more psychotropic medications, the number of young adults with mental health problems entering college has significantly increased. For example, in a survey of 274 institutions, 88% of counseling center directors reported an increase in “severe” psychological problems over the previous 5 years including learning disabilities, self-injury incidents, eating disorders, substance use, and sexual assaults. Thus, there is an increase in demand for counseling and specialized services.

However, the increase in demand has not always corresponded to an increase in staff. In particular, counseling centers are in need of psychiatrists with expertise in treating traditional as well as non-traditional college students, two groups with specific age-related characteristics and challenges.

In this commentary, the prevalence of psychiatric and substance use problems in college students, as well as their common onset, will be described. Next, the worrisome persistent nature of mental health problems among college students and its implication will be discussed. Finally, important treatment considerations for traditional and non-traditional college students will be outlined.

Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses among college students. Social phobia is the anxiety disorder with the earliest onset (median age of onset: 7–14 years), whereas panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorders (GAD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have later onsets. In a community sample of adolescents scientists discovered that the greatest risk period for getting PTSD was between the ages of 16 and 17, with roughly one-third of the sample developing the disease by the age of 14. As a result, many conventional students with PTSD may have suffered symptoms prior to enrolling in college, but those with GAD and OCD may begin suffering symptoms during their first year.

Depression is another major mental health concern among college students, with prevalence estimates ranging from 7 percent up to 63 percent. Over half of all cases of depression, according to scientists, began in childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood. Others have seen a linear increase in the likelihood of mood disorders starting in early adolescence and increasing with age.

Stressful teenage student having many problems

What do we know about anxiety in college?

It’s quite common. Anxiety is fairly frequent in college. 63 percent of college students in the United States experienced extreme anxiety in the previous year, according to the American College Health Association’s Fall 2018 National College Health Assessment. In the same study, 23% said they had been diagnosed or treated for anxiety in the previous year by a mental health professional.

The most significant rise in anxiety happens during the first few months of college. According to a new study, psychological distress among college students — that is, their levels of anxiety, sadness, and stress — climbs consistently during the first semester and stays high throughout the second semester. This indicates that the first year of college is a particularly high-risk period for anxiety initiation or worsening.

Many variables contribute to it. The increased risk of anxiety among college students is due to a variety of causes. Sleep disturbance induced by excessive coffee consumption and all-nighters, for example, has been linked to increased anxiety among college students. Loneliness is also linked to mental health issues, such as anxiety. Psychological distress among college students is also linked to academic aspects such as school stress and disengagement from studies.

It’s possible that it’s on the rise. Today’s college students appear to be more agitated and anxious than they have ever been. Anxiety levels have risen in recent years in Sweden, according to a recent study, particularly among young individuals. In the United States, some evidence suggests that adolescent psychological well-being has declined in recent years. It’s unclear what’s creating the problem though research demonstrates a substantial link between time spent on electronic communication (social media, smartphones) and decreased well-being among adolescents, it is not known what’s generating this trend. If electronic communication takes the place of good coping habits like exercise, face-to-face social interactions, and studying, it may make it more difficult to transition to college.

How to cope with anxiety in college

Whether you’re a student, a parent, or a college administrator, our advice on how to deal with anxiety at college might be useful. Even if you haven’t begun college yet, planning ahead can be beneficial.

Instead of avoiding, approach. College is difficult, and many students deal by avoiding stressful situations (skipping class, staying in bed all day). We do know, however, that avoidance tends to exacerbate anxiety over time. Instead, try approaching anxiety-provoking situations in small steps. If you’re having trouble in class, send an email to the lecturer for assistance. If you’re lonely, go to the dining hall and introduce yourself to someone. Not at college yet? Practice this skill over the summer by participating in pre-college programs on campus.

Self-care is important. Without the discipline of home, many students struggle to maintain healthy eating habits, consistent exercise, and regular sleep. Self-care practices like these, on the other hand, are critical for regulating mood and assisting people in coping with stress. Make an effort to develop your own self-care practice, especially before you begin college. The importance of good sleep hygiene cannot be overstated. Every day, set a consistent bedtime and wake-up time. Do not use your bed for anything other than sleeping, such as studying. Caffeine should be avoided in the evening, and alcohol should be avoided altogether, as it disrupts restful sleep.

Locate campus resources. Many institutions provide resources to assist students in navigating the first few weeks on campus and coping with stress. Examine the academic advising, study support, peer counseling, and student mental health resources available on campus. Do not let mental health deteriorate because of mental illness stigmatization!

Most college counselors focus on teaching coping skills instead of trying to be anxiety free. Students with anxiety may benefit greatly from small groups or short-term individual counseling to best learn helpful coping skills. College counselors can also implement school-wide anxiety reduction programs to teach all students coping skills and to reach the students with anxiety who have not been identified.

College administrators can support students by raising awareness on campus about stress and anxiety. The message that anxiety is common and treatable can reduce stigma for those who are struggling, and increase the likelihood that they will reach out for help. Administrators can also work on reducing barriers for students who need mental health resources. For example, colleges can offer mental health support to students via to make it as easy as possible to receive treatment.

Shot of a young man studying in a college library and looking stressed

What is depression?

Defined by Mayo Clinic, depression (major depressive disorder) is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. Fortunately, it is also treatable. Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease your ability to function at work and at home. Depression symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can include:

  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue
  • Increase in purposeless physical activity(e.g., inability to sit still, pacing, handwringing) or slowed movements or speech (these actions must be severe enough to be observable by others)
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), there is no one-size-fits-all solution to treat symptoms of depression. It takes time and patience to figure out the best mental health treatment for students.

JED reports that an estimated 2-15% of people who have major depression die by suicide. If someone is dealing with a depressive disorder, it’s important to watch for signs and symptoms that may indicate that the individual is at risk for suicide.

Many factors of college life contribute to risk factors of depression. Many students are unprepared for university life. Today’s students face high debt. They also have fewer job prospects after graduation than previous generations. These added concerns can lead to depressive episodes in college students.

Depressed students are at a greater risk of developing problems such as substance abuse. Depressed college students are more likely to binge drink, smoke marijuana (a risk factor for developing schizophrenia), and participate in risky sexual behaviors to cope with emotional pain than are their non-depressed friends.

The first step toward getting proper treatment for depression is to find the cause. It can stem from feeling isolated and lonely, chronic illness, a traumatic event, relationship issues, substance abuse, or being in an environment that isn’t supportive. It’s important to seek help from a mental health professional to figure out the best treatment plan.

Although it can be hard to ask for help, mental well-being is essential, and it will be beneficial in the long run. It takes time and commitment to find the right treatment, and it’s even better if the person has a strong support system. The best treatments for college-aged students with depression are usually a combination of antidepressant medications and talk therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy. Depressed students are also more likely to benefit from exercise, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough rest than many other groups.

Why is suicide so common among college students?

In a recent national survey 16% of college students reported being diagnosed with a depressive disorder, many within the last year. Over 90% of persons who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder, typically a depressive disorder or substance abuse disorder. Men are especially at risk for completed suicide. College age men are four to six times more likely to die by suicide than women. Women are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide using nonlethal means than men.

What are risk factors for suicide?

  • Depression and other mental disorders, or a substance-abuse disorder
  • Stressful life events, in combination with other risk factors such as depression
  • A prior suicide attempt
  • Family history of mental disorder, substance abuse, or suicide
  • A history of family violence or abuse
  • Access to a firearm or other lethal means such as medications

What are some warning signs?

  • Deteriorating academic performance
  • Depression, dramatic mood changes
  • Hopelessness
  • Preoccupation with death
  • Anxiety or agitation
  • Uncontrolled anger or rage
  • Engaging in risky activities
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Neglecting appearance and hygiene
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Giving away prized possessions

Is suicide preventable?

Yes! Specific kinds of psychotherapy have been found to be effective in treating suicide. Medications are also effective in treating the symptoms that contribute to suicide, such as depression and anxiety. Remember, you are not alone, and help is available!

Therapy has been shown to reduce mental illness in students

The effect of therapy on mental illness

A study in the UK with measured data in four UK Services concluded that academic distress showed the largest pre to post-counseling fall from 60% to 35% in terms of clients categorized as elevated-clinically.

Getting help for your mental health does not mean you are weak. It means you are strong. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable takes courage. Own your strength. GET HELP!

If you are a college / university administrator or student, please contact us to learn more about, the Telehealth service designed specifically for colleges and universities.

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