College Students and Mental Health

College students juggle numerous responsibilities that often result in stress. While stress is common, too much of it can cause a mental disorder. Reports show many college students today battle mental illness, but few seek help. Luckily, resources designed to help these students overcome their mental disorders exist today.

College can be a stressful time. Students often try to balance work, family and a social life. For many freshmen, college means being away from home for the first time, greater academic demands and more financial responsibilities.

Young adulthood is a critical time in regard to an individual’s mental health. The average age of onset for bipolar disorder is 25, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This disorder generally affects men and women equally.

Students face a variety mental health conditions that can have debilitating effects. The good news is that many of these disorders can be managed by developing healthy habits and seeking professional assistance.

Common Mental Health Conditions in College Students

Studies have shown that a great number of college students in the United States battle some form of mental illness.

A 2008 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders measured the prevalence of mental health problems among college students. More than 50 percent of students had a mental health problem at the start of the survey or during a follow up interview two years later.

Mental health disorders include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders. Each illness can affect a student’s academic performance, relationships and health. If left untreated, these disorders can result in substance abuse or addiction.

Stress

Stress can affect a person physically and emotionally. Physical symptoms of stress include muscular tension, high blood pressure, fatigue, difficulty sleeping and headaches. Emotional symptoms include anger, fear and mood swings.

Dr. Teresa Michaelson-Chmelir, associate director of outreach for Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida, told DrugRehab.com that students who endure too much stress can develop an anxiety disorder or depression.

“When we talk about depression and anxiety, we talk about them on a spectrum,” said Michaelson-Chmelir. “People can have normal reactions to stress; they can be upset, they can be sad. But if it’s one [stressful] event after another, that could lead to diagnosable depression or anxiety.”

Multiple reports suggest that stress affects college students. The American College Health Association’s most recent National College Health Assessment (NCHA) analyzed the health habits, behaviors and perceptions of 80,139 college students across the United States.

Nearly 34 percent of respondents reported experiencing stress that affected their individual academic performance. Nearly 43 percent of students reported experiencing higher than average stress in the last 12 months.

David Sneed, director of the Growth and Purpose for Students program at Belmont University, told USA Today that the fear of the unknown causes stress in many students, especially freshmen.

“For many people, it’s the true understanding of what college-level work is like,” said Sneed. “The depth of the workload that they have poses a great deal of stress.”

Dr. Dan Jones, the director of counseling and psychological services at Appalachian State University, told The New York Times that students often stress upon arrival to college. He attributes some of the stress to helicopter parenting.

“A lot are coming to school who don’t have the resilience of previous generations,” Jones said. “They can’t tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. A primary symptom is worrying, and they don’t have the ability to soothe themselves.”

Anxiety

Anxiety is a mental health condition that causes intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Anxiety disorders, the most common type of mental disorder, may cause social phobia, fear of failure or fear of separation.

Many factors can cause anxiety, including poor grades, relationship issues or financial problems. Social media is also a driving force. Students may see Facebook posts about everyone else’s successes, which could affect their own self-esteem.

Michaelson-Chmelir said UCF’s counseling department encounters many students who grapple with academic and interpersonal issues that induce stress. Anxiety and depression are the two most common issues among students seen through the department, she said.

“When we determine whether or not to diagnose someone with anxiety or depression, we look to see if it’s impacting day-to-day activities, sleeping or eating,” said Michaelson-Chmelir. “If it is chronic, if they are having a hard time getting out of bed or going to class, we refer them to psychiatry or medications.”

Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) is a practice-based research network focused on the mental health concerns of college students. Its 2015 report showed that anxiety surpassed depression as the most common mental health diagnosis among college students in the nation.

CCMH analyzed the health concerns of more than 100,000 students nationwide and found that more than half of those who visited a campus health clinic listed anxiety as a concern.

The 2016 NCHA analysis found that 24.4 percent of surveyed college students reported that anxiety affected their academic performance. Many students reported feeling hopeless, lonely, sad, overwhelmed or depressed in the last 12 months.

The report also showed that 18.8 percent of male students and 21.4 percent of female students reported feeling overwhelmed by anxiety in the past 12 months. Nearly 18 percent of male students and nearly 30 percent of female students reported feeling overwhelmed by anxiety in the past two weeks.

Resources for Anxiety

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America is an international nonprofit dedicated to the prevention, treatment and cure of mental illness, including anxiety disorders. Its website contains information, statistics and personal stories associated with mental illness.

Anxiety.org

Anxiety.org is a website that provides accessible and easy-to-understand mental health information. The site offers information and resources related to anxiety, including news articles.

The Anxiety Network

The Anxiety Network provides information about panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder. Its website offers news and resources associated with anxiety.

Depression

Depression is a mental health condition characterized by extreme sadness, irritability and a loss of interest in everyday activities. This mood disorder interferes with a person’s daily life, and affects physical and mental health.

Many college students experience depression. More than 16 percent of participants in the NCHA study reported that depression affected their individual academic performance. Fourteen percent of surveyed students were diagnosed or treated in the last 12 months for depression.

Incoming students may be living independently for the first time, adapting to new schedules or learning to manage money. These factors can be overwhelming. If not managed properly, constant stress can lead to the development of depression.

Michaelson-Chmelir said that some students do not manage their mental illness well.

“They begin to decompensate,” she said. “They fail out of school, get more depressed and show increases in suicidal ideation.”

Students who feel sad, hopeless or irritable for at least two weeks may have depression. Some studies suggest moderate to severe depression affects 1 in 3 college students. Students with depression have higher rates of suicide than does the general population.

Depression affects the way students feel, think and behave. They may feel hopeless and angry and have trouble sleeping. They may also have changes in appetite, trouble concentrating or suicidal thoughts.

The Healthy Minds Study 2015 found that 12.7 percent of surveyed undergraduate students and 8.7 percent of surveyed graduate students reported experiencing a major depressive episode in the past two weeks.

In 2012, the National Alliance on Mental Illness conducted a survey of college students living with mental health conditions. The nonprofit used the survey to determine whether schools were meeting the mental health needs of students and to see what improvements were needed to support students’ academic experiences.

Depression was the most represented mental health condition among survey participants. Women were two times more likely than men to experience depression in their lifetime. Bipolar disorder was the next most represented condition, followed by PTSD.

If a student’s depression is left untreated, he or she may self-medicate using drugs or alcohol or by engaging in high-risk behaviors.

Resources for Depression

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance

The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance provides hope, help, support and education to people with mood disorders. The organization offers peer-based, wellness-oriented and empowering services and resources to people in need.

National Institute on Mental Health

The National Institute on Mental Health provides statistics and resources related to mental illness, including depression.

Families for Depression Awareness

Families for Depression Awareness strives to help families recognize and cope with depression and bipolar disorder. The organization offers programs that provide training, resources and information associated with depression to families and caregivers.

PTSD

PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by a shocking, frightening or dangerous experience. A variety of events could lead to the development of PTSD, including assault, natural catastrophes or car accidents. Those diagnosed with the disorder experience for at least one month:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom
  • At least one avoidance symptom
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms

A person with PTSD may experience flashbacks or nightmares, startle easily, feel tense or have angry outbursts. They may also have trouble remembering a traumatic event, feel guilt or lose interest in hobbies.

The disorder commonly develops in military combat personnel. But college students are not immune to this mental illness.

PTSD rates among college students are not often reported. However, a 2011 State University of New York at Buffalo study showed that 6 to 17 percent of college students experience PTSD. The disorder can cause low self-esteem, angry outbursts or relationship problems.

Michaelson-Chmelir said some UCF students battle PTSD. The college has a large veteran population, many of whom have returned to civilian life after active combat. Some students who have witnessed car accidents are reluctant to drive home during breaks.

She also said sexual assault is common on campuses nationally. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are victims of sexual assault while in college. Many of these individuals battle multiple mental disorders, including PTSD.

A 2008 study published in the Journal of American College Health examined the prevalence, nature and severity of adverse life events among 6,053 undergraduate college students from diverse academic settings.

Of the 97 students interviewed, nearly 1 in 10 reported symptoms of clinical PTSD. Eleven percent reported subclinical symptoms of the disorder, such as poor sleep quality or hostility.

Resources for PTSD

National Center for PTSD

The National Center for PTSD offers information on and consultations for PTSD to the general public and professionals. The center provides education on co-occurring disorders, types of trauma and the research and biology behind PTSD.

PTSD Foundation of America

PTSD Foundation of America is dedicated to mentoring combat veterans with PTSD and their families. The nonprofit provides assistance through a faith-based approach.

Military with PTSD

Military with PTSD educates veterans, caretakers and civilians about the effects of PTSD on the community. The organization provides peer-to-peer support and works to help veterans integrate with their communities.

When Substance Abuse Becomes a Factor

Substance abuse is common today on college campuses.

According to the 2015 Monitoring the Future survey, 31.9 percent of surveyed college students reported binge drinking in the past two weeks. The report also found that 4.3 percent of surveyed students reported cocaine use and 4.6 percent of surveyed students reported marijuana use.

Students with mental illness are at greater risk than the general population for developing drug or alcohol problems.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that first-year college students with PTSD symptoms were at risk for alcohol- and drug-related problems.

Many college students with social anxiety disorder grapple with self-consciousness in social situations. A 2010 study published in the journal Behavioral Therapy found that female students more often reported drinking in social situations to cope with aversive emotions.

“Alcohol is an inhibitor, so [students with social anxiety symptoms] drink more because it relaxes them in social settings,” said Michaelson-Chmelir. “But over time, there will be consequences to that behavior.”

Relying on alcohol in social situations could lead to a loss of relationships, a DUI conviction or addiction. At some point, the substance they thought was helping them begins to hurt them, said Michaelson-Chmelir.

However, not all students with mental illness deal with substance abuse.

“Just because someone is depressed or anxious doesn’t mean they go on to use drugs,” said Michaelson-Chmelir. “Most commonly, people who use drugs do experience anxiety or depression.”

Substance Abuse Prevention Resources

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration promotes and implements prevention and early intervention strategies to reduce the impact of co-occurring disorders in the United States. Its websites provides readers with data and resources associated with substance abuse and mental health.

Youth.gov

Youth.gov provides interactive tools and other resources to help youth-serving organizations plan, implement and participate in effective programs for youth. The federal website promotes effective community-based efforts addressing youth risk and protective factors.

College AIM

The College Alcohol Intervention Matrix (CollegeAIM) is a resource intended to help schools address harmful and underage student drinking. The online tool addresses alcohol issues and helps readers identify effective alcohol interventions.

When Eating Disorders Become a Factor

Eating disorders are debilitating mental health disorders that disturb an individual’s eating behavior and weight regulation. Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.

These mental health conditions often co-occur with disorders such as depression or anxiety. Eating disorders affect both genders, but women and girls are 2.5 times more likely than men and boys to develop the disease.

Eating disorders frequently occur in teens and college-aged individuals. Ninety-five percent of eating disorders occur in people aged 12 to 25, according to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health.

In 2005, researchers at the University of Michigan, Vanderbilt University and Stanford University recruited a random sample of college students for an internet survey. The purpose of the survey was to examine the prevalence and persistence of eating disorders among college students.

More than 2,800 students completed the baseline survey. Among undergraduates, 13.5 percent of women and 3.6 percent of men were positively screened for an eating disorder symptom. Just 20 percent of positively-screened students received past-year treatment for their symptoms.

The report, published in the Journal of American College Health, found that positive screens often were associated with depression, anxiety, self-injury and substance abuse. Men with a positive screen were less likely than other males to exercise and binge drink. The opposite was true for females.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, approximately 50 percent of those with anorexia, the mental disorder with the highest mortality rate, have co-occurring anxiety disorders.

Eating Disorders Resources

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders strives to provide support, awareness and advocacy to people with eating disorders. The organization offers referrals and provides prevention tips to the community.

Binge Eating Disorder Association

The Binge Eating Disorder Association is an organization dedicated to providing leadership, recognition, prevention and treatment related to eating disorders. The nonprofit also aims to increase awareness and eliminate the stigma associated with eating disorders.

The National Eating Disorders Association

The National Eating Disorders Association advocates for individuals and families affected by eating disorders. The nonprofit campaigns for prevention, improved access to quality treatment and increased research funding to better understand and treat eating disorders.

Overcoming Mental Disorders

Most students with mental disorders do not seek help. The fear of stigma may contribute to this problem, but often students are unaware they have a mental disorder or don’t know that professional assistance is available.

Developing Healthy Habits

Mental health disorders include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders. Each illness can affect a student’s academic performance, relationships and health. If left untreated, these disorders can result in substance abuse or addiction.

Eat Right

Food can affect energy levels, physical health and mood. Students who incorporate essential nutrients — such as folate, vitamin B12, calcium, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids — into their diet may have more energy. These nutrients can also keep a student’s body and mind healthy.

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Exercise Regularly

Exercise boosts an adult’s physical and mental health. Exercising for long periods of time can produce long-term health benefits. The activity has also proved to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression by improving a person’s mood.

Get Plenty of Sleep

Sleep relieves the body and mind. Students who have trouble sleeping should set a sleep schedule, establish a bedtime ritual, avoid caffeine at night and take a warm bath or shower before turning out the lights.

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Make Time for You

It is important to take advantage of downtime. Students should set aside some time each day to do something for themselves, such as going for a walk, spending time with a friend or taking a bubble bath. This can reduce stress.

Eliminating Stigma

A 2007 study found that 37% of college students avoided seeking help for addiction because they feared social stigma.

People with mental illness often battle stigma, which is public judgment or criticism that creates shame, guilt or fear. For years, stigma has affected those battling mental disorders. Many falsely believe that mental illness is the result of personal weakness, lack of character or poor upbringing.

College students have been reluctant to seek help because of stigma. A 2007 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that 37 percent of college students avoided seeking help for addiction because they feared social stigma.

People can fight stigma in several ways.

One way to combat stigma is through education and awareness. Spreading awareness of mental illness could help reduce stereotypes.

Refraining from judgement can also help reduce stigma. Everyone has a different story. Getting to know a person with mental illness and treating him or her with kindness and respect can boost the individual’s self-esteem.

Seeking Assistance

Michaelson-Chmelir said that many students do not recognize stress. They may have become desensitized to stress after having experienced it for so long.

Then there are those who recognize their mental illness but feel hopeless. They may not know where to go for help. They may not even know that help exists.

Most universities across the United States offer free or low-cost mental health service. These schools have counselors and trained professionals who help students manage stress, develop balanced lifestyles and gain perspective on problems.

For example, UCF’s Counseling and Psychological Services offers free comprehensive psychological services to its students. Additionally, the school provides crisis intervention, presentation services and counseling services.

UCF also teaches students identify stress or mental illness.

On our campus, we market and promote our services,” said Michaelson-Chmelir. “We want students to be aware that if they’re feeling depressed or anxious, to please call our counseling and psychological services.”

Those battling mental illness and addiction should seek treatment. Many rehab centers offer a continuum of care catered to an individual’s needs. People who have successfully completed treatment have gone back to college and graduated.

On-campus services also exist for students in recovery.

Collegiate Recovery Communities can be found on college campuses across the United States. These communities offer safe, supportive environments for students in recovery. The programs provide a space for students to socialize, engage in support group meetings and speak with counselors.

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