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College Students and Mental Health: Common Issues

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College opens up a new world for its students. It is a time for exploring new horizons. So much is new—new faces, new routines, and opportunities that can open doors to new careers.

Despite the perception that college life mostly focuses on getting an education, joining a fraternity or sorority, or studying for midterms and making new friends, it is filled with sweeping change, and for many people, change is a rocky road. Many will find their footing, but many others will have some hardships along the way, particularly those concerning their mental and emotional health.

Mental health rarely ranks on the list of things people talk about when thinking about collegiate life. Usually, the conversation is about grades, professors, next semester’s courses, and whether a spot is open in a class that’s needed for graduation.

Many people in their first semester are adjusting to being on their own, while people in their last semester are managing many pressures, including passing every class so that they can graduate on time. There’s also the pressure to land a job by the time the semester ends.

Real-life responsibilities follow some people to campus, too, as some students hold down a job and go to school or take care of children, older parents, and others as they seek their degrees. There is no shortage of issues that can bring on bouts of anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders.

Mental health is also at the forefront as college campuses deal with the coronavirus pandemic, which has made college life a lot more challenging, as KQED highlights in its report.

It also cites research from Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health, which identified in its 2018 report the key mental health issues in the collegiate environment.

According to the data, university students and their counselors report experiencing anxiety and depression more than any other disorder. This finding mirrors what is happening on a national level. Both disorders are widespread, as the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) notes. 

Since these are the most common mental health issues affecting college students, we will look at each of these below as well as other behaviors that affect students’ mental well-being on college campuses. 

Anxiety 

Worrying or feeling anxious happens to just about everyone, but when these feelings intensify to the point where college students struggle to control them, they might be dealing with an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder, among others. 

“For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time,” the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) writes. People with an anxiety disorder may notice struggles with their relationships, job performance, or schoolwork, NIMH says.

College students deal with many things that can bring on anxiety. There are deadlines for exams, research papers, financial aid paperwork, and even applying for jobs while making sure everything is in order for graduation. All of these things and so much more come with college life, but they can be overwhelming to take on. 

College students in their teens and early 20s are still learning how to cope with the responsibility and becoming an adult. Without the proper tools, a mental health disorder can make it challenging to manage multiple areas of life successfully.

With generalized anxiety disorder, a student could deal with any of the following, according to NIMH:

  • Restlessness, feeling wound up or on edge
  • Tire out easily
  • Struggling with concentrating; mind going blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension problems
  • Excessive worrying
  • Sleep problems (staying asleep or falling asleep)

Managing uncertainty, especially in these times, can be challenging. If you or someone you know needs treatment for an anxiety disorder, do not be afraid to speak with a doctor, counselor, or other mental health counselor.

Depression 

Depression, formally known as major depressive disorder (MDD) or clinical depression, is a serious medical condition that can take over a person’s thoughts, actions, and feelings daily for long periods of time. It is estimated to affect 300 million-plus people globally. 

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says the disorder is the primary cause of disability among Americans between the ages of 15 to 44.3. Also, the disorder affects more than 16.1 million American adults. 

In the Penn State analysis, depression increased among students, outpacing anxiety. According to Mayo Clinic, depression is common among college students, and people can develop depression while in college, it says.

Many things can bring on depression, including feelings of homesickness, figuring out one’s identity in a new environment, and managing money, such as financial aid and personal finances, which can be stretched thin during this time.

“Dealing with these changes during the transition from adolescence to adulthood can trigger or unmask depression during college in some young adults,” the Mayo Clinic says.

There are different kinds of depression, as the ADAA notes, and it can range from mild to severe. 

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) writes that, “Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home.”

It lasts longer than just a day or two of feeling sad or “down in the dumps.” Depression can affect every area of one’s life, and it should be treated as soon as possible.

Other symptoms of MDD, according to the APA, include:

  • Nagging sadness that lingers
  • Loss of interest in everyday activities
  • No interest or pleasure in hobbies, once enjoyable activities
  • Non-diet-related weight loss or gain 
  • Lethargy (having little to no energy to move around)
  • Increased tiredness 
  • Restlessness, irritability (pacing, hand-wringing)
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking clearly to make decisions
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Thoughts about death, dying, or suicide

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, the condition can be treated professionally. See a doctor or mental health professional as soon as possible.

Suicide and Self-Harm

Suicide, or the act of taking of one’s life, remains a real threat to college students on campuses across the U.S., as it has been identified as the second-most common cause of death among college-aged students and the 10th-leading cause of death among Americans, according to an ABC News report.

SafeColleges.com reports that 1,000 students take their lives each year on college campuses and that more than half of college students have had thoughts of dying by their own hand. An estimated 10 percent have seriously considered going through with it. It is also alarming that up to 90 percent of college students who die by suicide did not seek or receive help from the counseling centers on campus.

“We are facing a national mental health crisis, and college campuses are reflecting what’s going on in society at large,” Dr. Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer of the Jed Foundation, told ABC News. The foundation works to prevent suicide among young people.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Stephanie Samar told the news network that the choices that college students make about their lifestyles can add to depressive symptoms and stress. These choices do not support healthy habits that can support being able to cope with the changes and challenges, such as not eating properly or not getting enough sleep or exercise. They also include trying out addictive substances, she said.

College life can be so hurried that it is easy for people with suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm to go unnoticed or dismissed. Take the signs of suicide seriously, and get help for a person who talks about killing themselves. 

The NIMH reports that other signs are a person expressing a desire to die to heavy guilt or shame or feeling like a burden to others. They also might express feeling “empty, hopeless, trapped, or having no reason to live,” according to the NIMH, and can appear very sad, more anxious, irritable, or angry.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right away at 1-800-273-8255. There is help and hope.

Self-Harm

Non-suicide self-injuries are also a mental health concern among the college student population, reports Higher Education Today, a blog the American Council on Education publishes. Self-harm is the known term, and it involves a person cutting, scratching, or burning their body to feel pain and harm themselves. A person may also punch objects to achieve this. 

According to research it highlights in its report, “approximately one in five college students have engaged in self-injury, although rates can vary substantially, ranging from 7 percent to 44 percent.”

It also shares that, “Self-injury is often episodic, which means people will use it for a while but may go days, months, or even years without self-injury episodes or urges before self-injuring again,” according to Higher Education Today

Self-harming has been linked to other disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among many others. 

Higher Education Today also shares that students who engage in self-injury are a challenge for college administrators, counselors, and other mental health professionals because it is difficult to know when to get involved and how. It is also hard to help students who self-harm because they can slip under the radar because they bring no attention to themselves.

People who exhibit self-injury behavior are advised to seek counseling and treatment for possible mental illnesses.

Mental Health Disorders and Addiction: The Connection

There are many other mental health disorders that college students can experience, including bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). All of them can have debilitating symptoms that can make it difficult for students to concentrate on a successful experience at a college or university.

Many people are not aware that they are battling two disorders at the same time, a condition known as dual diagnosis. This is when a person with a mental illness is self-medicating with addictive or harmful substances to cope with anxiety, depression, suicide, or other psychological and emotional challenges.

Self-medicating is hard on the body and mind and only increases one’s dependence on or addiction to substances that can lead them to overdose or die.

If you know someone who is battling dual diagnosis, it is important that they receive help for both disorders at the same time. Addressing both gives the person the best chance to manage both disorders.

The Palm Beach Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida, can help you or your loved one who is in college dealing with mental health struggles. We offer a range of services from medical detox and therapy and counseling to address the whole person. Give us a call today to see how we can help you. Call now. The sooner you call, the sooner we can help you.

Sources

Klivans, Laura. “It's OK to Not Be OK: College Students Tackle Mental Health Challenges During the Pandemic.” KQED, 9 Oct. 1970. from https://www.kqed.org/news/11841065/its-ok-to-not-be-ok-college-students-tackle-mental-health-challenges-during-the-pandemic

State, ImageIMAGE: Penn, et al. “Annual Collegiate Mental Health Report Examines Trends and Policy Implications.” Penn State University. from https://news.psu.edu/story/554203/2019/01/16/academics/annual-collegiate-mental-health-report-examines-trends-and-policy

Depression. (n.d.). Anxiety and Depression Association for America. from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/depression

ADAA. (n.d.). Facts & Statistics. from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics

Mayo Clinic. “College Depression: What Parents Need to Know.” 14 Feb. 2020. from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/college-depression/art-20048327

American Psychiatric Association. (n.d.). from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression

National Institute of Mental Health. (2018, July). Anxiety Disorders. from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml

David, Eden. “Rising rates at college campuses prompt concerns over mental health care.” (Oct. 9, 2019). ABC News, ABC News Network. from https://abcnews.go.com/Health/rising-suicide-rates-college-campuses-prompt-concerns-mental/story?id=66126446

Brodbeck, Ben. “Suicide Second Highest Cause of College Deaths.” SafeColleges. from https://www.safecolleges.com/suicide-second-highest-cause-of-death-among-college-students/

“Warning Signs of Suicide.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/warning-signs-of-suicide/index.shtml

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. from https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

“Non-Suicidal Self-Injury on College Campuses.” Higher Education Today, 9 Aug. 2019. from http://www.higheredtoday.org/2019/02/06/non-suicidal-self-injury-college-campuses/

National Institute on Mental Illness. Bipolar Disorder. Definition. from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/bipolar-disorder.shtml

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