Mental Health Challenges of College Students

College students are vulnerable to a wide variety of mental health challenges, and there is no one inoculation against any of these possible experiences. Clinical conditions such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, and even panic are common experiences for college students due to the many new stressors and pressures that come with the new academic and relational college experiences.

Less serious levels of stress and anxiety can still cause students distress and functional difficulties in sleep, time management, school performance, social interactions, and decision-making. Additionally, the new freedom that the college experience brings for many students also comes with some negative decisional consequences and tough learning experiences.

Too little sleep is a common and insidious starting point for many mental health challenges among college students. New social opportunities, coursework demands, sport and academic obligations, and a host of other possible distractions can render sleep pretty low on the priority list, and many students struggle with time management that includes a restful and restorative amount of sleep. Being unrested can lead to decreased competency in many of these areas, which can in turn result in heightened stress and anxiety and start a feedback loop of decreased performance and increased stress. Add in shoestring budgets, unlimited access to junk food, and low motivation to seek out veggies and water when there are chips and soda everywhere, and you have a recipe for very unhappy campers.

For many students, the virtually unlimited opportunities for socializing at college creates tantalizing possibilities that puts them further and further behind in the coursework and other responsibilities. Like people in financial debt, being in “time management” debt may create additional avoidance (feeling too overwhelmed by the feeling of being behind to engage in doing something about it) which renders the problem even more daunting.

College students may also find themselves feeling anxious or depressed by the seeming magnitude of the decisions they face as college students. They may feel that choosing “the right” major or course of study will determine the outcome of the rest of their lives; that dating “the right” person may have incredible importance for their future; or that making a certain athletic, academic, or other achievement has deep ramifications for their ultimate goal achievement.

Unfortunately, college may also be the first time that students have exposure and unsupervised access to substances such as marijuana, alcohol, and more serious substances of abuse like prescription medications or other street drugs. Many college students will experiment with alcohol and pot with a few bad hangovers and some tough lessons, but emerge largely unscathed. However, with the increasing ubiquity of harder street drugs and illicit prescription medications, some students may find themselves with substance-abuse related difficulties that causes them significant shame and functional impairment, as well as primary (direct effect of the substance) and secondary (related to feelings of embarrassment and distress) anxiety and depression. Individuals with genetic predispositions to some psychiatric conditions — particularly schizophrenic disorders — may find these conditions are acutely “triggered” for the first time by the use of substances.

Fortunately, college campuses have excellent resources for mental health support, including peer support networks, peer counselors, mental health professionals, substance use treatment support, and pathways to other helpful tools. If you have concerns about your student’s mental health, talk to them about it in a low-key, supportive, non-confrontational way that lets them know it’s okay to need and get help on this new journey, and then stay involved until they get linked up with the supports they need.  

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