Unique Mental Health Struggles for College Students

February 17, 2021

Across the nation, more students are manifesting signs of emotional and psychological distress, reflecting a confluence of a multitude of factors affecting the current generation of students, especially during the lockdown.


College and university students are at high risk for developing mental health issues, conditions that may affect their ability to think and feel. Severe mental health issues may affect students’ ability to perform daily functions and interact with other members of the community.


Traditional college students start college after completing high school, are typically younger, depend on parents for financial support, and do not work or work part-time. Thus, in addition to stress-related to academic load, these students may have to face the task of taking on more adult-like responsibilities without having yet mastered the skills and cognitive maturity of adulthood.


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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.


The top five most common mental health challenges students face in college are:


  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Addiction
  • Eating Disorders
  • Suicide


Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent psychiatric problems among college students, with approximately 11.9 % of college students suffering from an anxiety disorder. Second most common mental health problem among college students is depression, with prevalence rates in college students of 7 to 9 %. Suicide, although not a specific diagnosis, is the third leading cause of death among young adults and is a significant problem among college students. Unfortunately, the stigma of mental illness on campus can force students to stay silent about their hardships. 

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Experts and researchers use terms like crisis and epidemic to characterize the mental health challenges currently facing American college students. According to 2018 and 2019 student surveys from the American College Health Association (ACHA), about 60% of respondents felt “overwhelming” anxiety, while 40% experienced depression so severe they had difficulty functioning. 


Did you know that most psychological problems — even the more serious concerns — have high rates of recovery if appropriate help is received in time? Unfortunately, many students fail to get the help they need for any number of reasons, including lack of knowledge about the early warning signs of psychological distress, denial, stigma and lack of information about campus resources that can provide help.


If you become aware of a student who has mental health problem, consider the following tips and referrals:


  • Listen carefully and validate the student’s feelings and experiences.


  • Express your genuine concern for the student, focusing on specific behavior and/or changes you’ve observed (e.g., irregular class attendance, deteriorating academic performance, marks on their arms).


  • Allow the student to respond to your concerns and observations.


  • Be prepared for the student to deny any problem and to reject your help.


  • Encourage the student to use positive coping strategies to manage transition stress, including regular exercise, use of social support, a reasonable eating and sleeping regimen.


  • Refer a student to the Counseling Center. He or she may be feeling high levels of emotional pain, and may also be experiencing anxiety and/or depression. One goal of therapy is to help the student express their feelings and to develop more adaptive coping mechanisms to deal with their distress.


Knowing the warning signs of trouble, the early indicators of distress, how to respond in these situations and how to contribute to a healthy learning environment will greatly increase your ability to act appropriately in such situations, help improve another’s quality of life, and may even help save a life. 

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