Mental Illness in College Students

Before COVID-19, our country was experiencing a mental health, substance use and suicide crisis. Now, with the global pandemic, economic downturn and growing political discord, people are struggling more than ever. Today, one in three people in the U.S. have symptoms of anxiety or depression, with even greater increases for Black and Asian Americans. People living with severe mental illness also face stigma and daunting barriers to getting the intensive services and emergency care they need.

Imagine this for a college student.

Everything about this time of life is new. You are completely green to the world. High school was supposed to prepare you, but it can’t possibly thrust you into this new endeavor in a way that fully prepares you.

You are likely away from home for the first time, possibly living with a stranger as a roommate. While there are new freedoms and plenty of autonomy, that can sometimes lead to more stress and anxiety for some.

There is much less hand holding and much more adulting. Oftentimes, the classes are too large for personalized attention so it’s easy to get lost in a sea of other students. You are navigating your way around a small city, probably in a new city. You may not yet have any friends or familiar faces. There are bills to pay. Parking permits to get. Books to buy. You’ve never even heard of a registrar’s office before let alone visited one. Where is the health clinic again? Not only do you not know who to sit with at lunch, but there is also no one designated lunch spot. You are completely on your own!

The stress is sometimes insurmountable. We understand and we are here to help.

The Pressure to Succeed

Tips for Succeeding in School

Whether you already know that you have a mental illness or find yourself experiencing one for the first time in college, you can take some actions on your own to strengthen your health:

Maintain and build support systems.

You’ll still have your connections with friends and family back home for much needed stability. But college also provides opportunities to make new friends and create new support systems. Check out clubs and organizations. Or maybe you’ll make a friend in a class or two.

If you’re homesick, allow yourself to call home but don’t be afraid to reach out to the people around you. They may be missing home, too, and find themselves in need of a new friend. At the same time, be selective of who you surround yourself with; for your own health, choose positivity and light over darkness and partying.

Monitor symptoms.

A short, daily record of key symptoms such as mood and anxiety levels can help you notice if your symptoms are getting worse. College can make it hard to stay on a regular schedule, which in turn makes it difficult to notice changes in your eating or sleep patterns. If your symptoms steadily worsen as you make the transition to college, don’t wait to consult a doctor or therapist.

Maintain healthy habits.

Exercising, eating a balanced diet and getting between 7-9 hours of sleep will give you more energy, help you focus better and keep you emotionally resilient. Plan ahead for the health challenges of dining hall food, late night study sessions and party invites.

Avoid drugs and alcohol.

Speaking of parties, choose wisely. Though the short-term effects of alcohol, marijuana and other drugs may give users a boost, these are poor ways to cope with stress. If you have a mental illness, you should avoid or at least limit your use of drugs and alcohol. When you plan for the academic work at college, plan for the social life as well. Think about social activities you enjoy that don’t involve drugs and alcohol and seek out these activities on campus. There are plenty of other like-minded individuals who want to have fun but know their limits. Find them!

Reduce academic stress.

Using academic supports such as study groups, tutors and the campus writing center can make classwork easier and give you encouragement from others. Don’t be afraid to speak with your professors, either. Most maintain specific office hours.

Because the average American college and university workload varies considerably from week to week, experiment with time management methods and find the ones that work best for you. Your school may offer first-year students advice on study skills and time management to help with this transition.

Learn more about mental health issues.

Most colleges and universities offer students support groups for mental illnesses and stress management. NAMI may even have a group on campus or an affiliate in the community. And college is also a great opportunity to learn more about the brain by taking classes in psychology. Knowledge increases your sense of power over your illness.

Mental Health Problems are Increasing for College Students

You and your parents may already be aware that college student populations have taken a rather large hit in recent years (even prior to the pandemic) with rising mental health diagnoses. According to one large, epidemiological study , 14 percent of college students over the past 10 years. Depression and depressive episodes, anxiety, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts and other mental health illnesses are on the rise, as is the demand for counseling centers and services. There are several studies and experts who suggest this is largely due to technology and, specifically, social media. We also suspect the drastic change to be at least partially due to the pandemic. The good news is, there has been a significant rise in students seeking help (a 15 percent increase in that same 10-year period ), so much so that mental health services on campus are often unable to keep up with demand due to a limited number of mental health professionals.

Identifying Signs

We understand the difficulty that comes along with recognizing signs of mental illness in oneself. Often, and especially for college students, we just assume this is a normal reaction to our stressful life and surroundings. You might think, this is just typical college life. But what if it’s not and what if what you’re going through is treatable? 

Here are some identifying signs that may help you seek a diagnosis and treatment if needed:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes (mood disorder), including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities (social anxiety)
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don’t exist in objective reality)
  • Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (”lack of insight” or anosognosia)
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Substance use disorder* (alcohol or drugs)
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
  • Suicidal thoughts**
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
  • Intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
  • Changes in school performance
Students studying in a library