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Navigating Mental Health Challenges in College: Strategies for Coping and Seeking Support

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.”

—Glenn Close, American Actress

A college campus with a green lawn on the right and a building on the left.

Introduction

College is a time filled with trying new things, taking midterm exams, making new friends, and experiencing busy-packed days. With this comes moments of excitement and independence as many live independently for the first time. Not knowing how to do laundry or what can and can’t go in the microwave are relatively easy to change. On the other hand, managing time with so many juggling pieces, adjusting to a new schedule, and resolving roommate conflicts can feel a bit more challenging to navigate. It can feel the most challenging, however, to struggle with mental health, figure out potential next steps, and follow through with a plan. Navigating these challenges can feel burdening, and for many college students, it is often the factors that may hinder them from seeking help that would actually make them that much more likely to benefit from it.  

How can college students find this support? How can they reach the point where they are comfortable accessing and benefiting from them? Further, what should college students do if they are worried about a friend? In order to deep-dive into these questions, we must first understand why this is important. 


The Importance

According to the 2020 Healthy Minds study, over 60% of college students meet the criteria for at least one mental health disorder. This data was collected from nearly 400 institutions and sheds light on the alarming rates of mental health concerns on college campuses. A 2023 survey published by Preeti Vankar found that 41 percent of college students were experiencing depression. Furthermore, in the 2023 college mental health report from Best Colleges, 99% of those surveyed shared that their academic performance affected their mental health, and 64% of students shared that they had experienced overwhelming levels of anxiety in the past year. 


Rates of mental health disorders and conversations surrounding these issues have increased each year, and one would hope that with the increase in occurrence rates and conversations, more students would be seeking support. While this is true for some, it is not true for all, and willingness to pursue the next steps is critical, as are beneficial resources.

Wyatt et al. found that the first year of college is an inherently impactful time to promote awareness of mental health issues and available resources. They found that upperclassmen reported higher levels of academic impact from mental health factors and that mental health concerns occur at high rates in underclassmen, as well. Additionally, findings showed that the prevalence of mental health concerns is increasing. This survey included responses from over 66 thousand college students and established that there are many ways to incorporate mental health awareness into the early months on college campuses. 


Additionally, Eisenberg et al. conducted a study in which they found that of students surveyed with a previously established mental health concern, only 36% received treatment in the past year and that the rates of accessing psychotherapy and taking medication were approximately the same. On this note, Yorgason et al. found that students who had been going through mental distress were more likely to know about services on campus as well as use them. Despite this, there were still students who shared that they were going through mental health challenges but did not know about services or use them. Factors that decreased one’s knowledge of available services included those who identified as male, had fewer years in college or lived off campus. Due to this, it is up to institutions to readily advertise and share information with students in order for them to know the services that exist. 


Furthermore, it is important to note that in addition to knowledge of services being a barrier to students' access to support, stigma also plays a role. Eisenberg et al. found that from a sample of nearly six thousand students from 13 universities, perceived public stigma was higher than personal stigma, and individuals who were male, younger, or from a poorer family had increased personal stigma. 


With these factors laid out, it becomes apparent that access, knowledge, and moving past stigma are critical in enabling individuals to seek support. Additionally, rates of mental health concerns are alarming on college campuses. 


The Factors at Play 

One model that helps us better understand the large span of factors that can influence mental health is the biopsychosocial model. The “biology” component refers to factors such as genetics, medications, and physical health which can all impact mental health. The “psych” component includes behavior patterns, moods, and emotions. The “social” component largely refers to environmental factors and supports influencing mental health. Just like anyone, for college students, everything from their environment to their genetics can influence their likelihood of experiencing mental health concerns. For most individuals, it is not just about one single factor but, rather, the combination of many. 


In terms of environment, specifically, there are aspects of the college experience that may lead some individuals to face mental health challenges. The pressure of making friends early on, balancing “work” and “play,” feeling distant from the support system they may have at home, and academic stressors can worsen mental health. Transitioning to the college campus can lead some to experience challenges adjusting to the new environment, homesickness, or loneliness in those early days. The college environment can also foster unhealthy habits for some, including less exercise, poor diet, and lack of sleep. Additionally, depending on who an individual surrounds themself with, there could be surrounding stigma around mental health conversations. College students may also experience financial stress while not having a job on campus and worrying about loans and tuition, which can worsen mental health. All of these factors can lead to the college environment bolstering mental health concerns. 


On the other hand, college campus environments can foster positive mental health outcomes for many, as well. They may be filled with green spaces and walking paths, which makes a critical difference, as nature is known to improve wellbeing. Study spaces may be filled with natural light and openness, leading to increased levels of productivity, positivity, and collaboration. Living in a dorm surrounded by other students can lead to increased levels of socialization that foster positive outcomes in mental health. Additionally, campus considerations around accessibility and inclusivity can make many students feel at home. 


It is critical that college campuses are intentional about ensuring that students feel supported and are able to access resources that can lead them to maintain solid well-being. Enjoying all that the college experience has to offer is contingent on mental health. 


What Supports May Look Like 

Support can be so impactful. Exactly what that support looks like will vary from campus to campus and from individual to individual. 


Many colleges have counseling centers, some associated with their health centers, to better support students. For many institutions, this is included in tuition, leading to no additional charges for these services. These centers may include one-on-one therapy sessions, support groups, in-person therapy, and telehealth options. 


Counseling centers can be beneficial for both individuals who have experience with therapy and those who don’t. Campus counseling centers can help students with a variety of concerns, including anxiety, depression, sleep habits, relationship concerns, career uncertainty, and so much more. Counseling centers are often also readily able to recommend various outside services for students. 


These supports are becoming increasingly common, and in 2019, 90% of counseling center directors, according to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey, shared that there had been an increase in students seeking services.


Many counseling centers will have a “consultation clinic” or form of drop in hours for students to be able to connect without an appointment. Other options may include being able to make appointments with the therapists on staff. This is often either in the form of individual counseling or group sessions. Group sessions may be focused on specific topics for students to be able to connect with other students, as well. Supports may also be in the form of crisis support for students, as well as training for how students can support other students. 


Support for students often extends beyond the college counseling center. Students with documented learning disabilities benefit from accessibility services. Additionally, resources on campus, such as drop-in help and tutoring, can be instrumental for students facing academic stress or burnout. Joining clubs to meet more people or going to meals with a couple of friends can be helpful for students who feel socially isolated. Practicing mindfulness and self-care techniques is critical for college students and can be a great way to de-stress after a long day!


Getting Over the Hurdle 

There are various reasons why college students may be hesitant to seek support on campus. These can include not having time, sensing that there is a public stigma for seeking support, and fear of trying something out and it not working. 


Feeling like students don’t have enough time to seek counseling is a concern. Due to this, some students may prefer to make an appointment since it holds them accountable for making time, and other students may prefer to go to drop-in hours so they don’t have to commit to a time in advance. 


Additionally, for some students, they can sense that there is stigma surrounding seeking support. It is important to note that seeking services is confidential. Additionally, as mentioned in previous studies, perceived public stigma is often rated higher than individual stigma truly is, which is critical to underscore. It can be hard to seek support when students fear that it is stigmatized, and despite the fact that it is super normal and expected for students to utilize counseling services, internal fear of stigma is a hurdle that can feel challenging to overcome. 


Lastly, the fear of counseling services “not working” prevents many students from seeking support. However, there is no harm in trying, and if a student meets with one therapist and it is not a good match, there are often other options! Trial and error can be super impactful in finding the best fit. 


In Conclusion

When students feel supported on campus, they are better able to put their best foot forward academically and socially. College is a magical time filled with memories that many call the “best four years of their life!” Reaching that point requires feeling like students are able to truly feel supported. Options for support on campus vary, and the process of finding the “right” one can require some trial and error, but in the end, it can be extremely beneficial and impactful. 


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