Heading to College? Prioritizing Your Mental Health Is a Must

With all the preparation that goes into planning for college — where to go, how to pay for it, what to major in — it’s not uncommon for something crucial like mental health to be overlooked in such a busy season of life.

But those sudden life changes that come with going to college are precisely why mental health should become a priority. Recent evidence suggests that today’s students have greater levels of stress, mental or behavioral disorders than any others in American history.

According to an Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors’ survey, 95 percent of counseling center directors reported that the number of students with significant psychological problems is a growing concern on campus.

The Heart of the Matter

When it comes to mental health, young adulthood is a critical benchmark. Not only do 75 percent of mental illnesses begin by age 24, but according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, mental illness now affects about 43.8 million adults, which translates to about one in five people.1

There are a myriad of contributing factors, and it’s probably no secret that stress, both academic and social, often plays a leading role in everything from bouts of depression to anxiety for college students. These factors include everything from rigorous academic strain and the innate pressure to fit in to lack of sleep and supervision. The wider availability of alcohol and drugs, challenges of living with roommates, and the pervasive party and hook-up culture can be particularly demanding.

In the aftermath of events like the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in 2007, when a student shot and killed 32 students and faculty members before turning the gun on himself, college students have been looking into on-campus mental health initiatives more and more. The most recent report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health identified a marked increase in students seeking mental health services.

But for all of the strides being made to educate and de-stigmatize mental health, many still don’t get the counseling they need. A survey from the American College Health Association revealed that only 12 percent of students, who admitted to struggling with significant bouts of anxiety or depression, have sought counseling.

The Power in Planning Ahead

Successfully navigating the college experience is helped significantly by advanced planning and having a strong support system in place, especially if a student is struggling with a mental health condition before entering, or while already enrolled, in a university.
One way to minimize the stress of having so much change happen all at once is to consider a more gradual transition to campus life by completing general coursework at a community college, and living with family or friends before transferring to a larger university. Another option is choosing an out-of-state college near close loved ones, so you’ve got some familiar faces in your new surroundings.

There are a few keys components that experts agree will help college students with mental health including: building strong support systems, maintaining healthy habits including regular exercise, sleep and a proper diet, avoiding drugs and alcohol, and last but not least, learning more about mental illness.2 While many colleges offer support groups for mental illness and stress relief, there may be additional resources in your community. Ask a physician for more resources in your area.

Reducing academic stress can also be a game-changer. Whether it’s attending a regular study group or utilizing on-campus tutoring services, the encouragement that trusted professionals provide can help lighten the load.

By Christa Banister

1 Rhodan, Maya. “Why College Is a Risky Time For Students’ Mental Health.” Time, August 31, 2016.
2Managing a Mental Health Condition in College.” National Alliance on Mental Illness, Accessed May 29, 2018.

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