More often than not, college is considered the best four years of your life. But what if that’s not the case? For some, the transition from high school to college can be an overwhelming adjustment.
College requires you to acclimate to many unfamiliar circumstances, like: separation from family and lifelong friends, financial burdens, sharing a room with a total stranger, and even a staggering course load.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), more than 75 percent of all mental health conditions begin before the age of 24. With one in five college students being diagnosed with a mental illness, it’s vital to be proactive in recognizing challenges that cause mental health symptoms and to know that there are supportive strategies to help overcome these hardships in order to make the most of your college experience.
Identify Challenges & Triggers
Making new friends is a significant part of attending a university whether you’re enrolled in your town’s local community college or far away from home. Some people have a certain aura of charisma to them which makes it easy for them to make new friends naturally. On the other hand, other students commonly struggle to find their niche or group. The idea of letting your guard down and opening up to strangers can be frightening to our sense of security. Navigating social norms and finding your identity can cause intense feelings of anxiety. A report by The American College Health Association (ACHA) showed that 56.9 percent of students felt overwhelming anxiety, with 15.8 percent being diagnosed with, or treated for, anxiety problems.
“Should I sleep or should I shower? I could sleep in the shower. But I’m also starving.” – Cristina Yang; fictional character from television series Grey’s Anatomy.
At one time or another every student experiences stress. College introduces an entirely new need for effective time management skills. Imagine having to find the time in your day to attend class, go to work, complete homework assignments, study, participate in a club, have a social life, and sleep. If you break it down: stress correlates with a lower mood which in turn can cause students to skip healthy mood regulation strategies, thus maintaining the cycle of mood problems.
If stress is not managed properly, it can become chronic and can both directly and indirectly increase the risk of developing depression. The same aforementioned report by the ACHA shows that 85.6 percent of students reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do, and 34.5 percent of students reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function.
Recognizing When Symptoms Strike
Bad moods or feeling sad are typical reactions to stressors and struggles in life, so it’s normal for students to feel down on occasion. But when do those feelings become a cause for concern?
NAMI suggests looking for warning signs, including:
- Prolonged feelings of sadness
- Isolation or withdrawal from usual activities
- Decreased appetite or weight loss
- Trouble sleeping
- Excessive anxiety or panic
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
- Excessive use of alcohol or drugs
If these symptoms are present for at least two weeks, you could be at risk for depression. If you are personally struggling with these symptoms, tell someone. Or if you notice these changes in a friend, start a conversation. Despite common misconceptions, nobody is ever alone.
Mental Health America (MHA) suggests making a list of friends and family members who are supportive and positive that you can talk to about what you need, such as a sympathetic ear, help solving a problem, a fresh perspective, new ideas or a good laugh. Communication tools like Skype and FaceTime are great ways for college students to stay in touch with long-distance family members or friends.
Combat Mental Health Together
Finding ways to make new friends can be the first step to building helpful a support system. Take advantage of campus events that encompass your interests or values. Sporting events, campus concerts, or clubs and organizations are inexpensive and fun ways to connect with other students who may be feeling the same apprehensions as you.
Once you have a strong support system, it’s easier to start and stay engaged in the conversation surrounding mental health. NAMI has student guides to mental health that include fact sheets and infographics to guide you in helping a friend with mental health issues.
Nonetheless, it’s still important to talk to a school therapist or doctor as 13.1 percent and 15.8 percent of students were diagnosed with or treated for, depression and anxiety, respectively. It’s easier than ever to facilitate the first steps for professional treatment. In the current digital age, you can find a suite of mental health resources like a depression discussion guides which help to navigate a conversation with a doctor after a diagnosis.
If you’re still feeling uneasy, try journaling your concerns. Write down any questions you may have that are stirring up feelings of apprehension about confiding in a doctor.
For instance, some people might avoid talking about depression with a doctor because they don’t want to be prescribed antidepressants. So write down questions to ask, like: “I would like to try alternative routes other than medication. What do you suggest?” Or, “I read online about different types of therapy. Could you provide me with a referral to a trusted therapist?” Depression, as well as anxiety, have many combinations of treatment available to fit everyone’s needs.
Our level of comfort talking about our struggles varies from person to person. But the greatest reminder is that you are never alone — especially in college. Between campus counseling centers, reconnecting with family members, or asking a roommate or peer to talk over a cup of coffee, your supportive outlets are limitless. Julia Schroer, a member of Mizzou Student Suicide Prevention Coalition reminds us, “There might be times where you feel you are one in a million, [but] there are many students going through what you are experiencing.”