Mental Health Issues College Students Face Today

We can all face issues with mental health, and college students are no exception. The pressures of balancing courses, social life, work and taking on student loan debt can all weigh heavily on your sense of well-being.

Let’s look at college and mental health, including common challenges and how to deal with them. Specifically:

Mental health challenges in college

Mental health challenges — whether from coursework or student loan debt — are common among college students, sometimes impacting their ability to study, work, concentrate, sleep or eat.

According to a nationwide survey administered in the fall of 2020, college students are more likely to face mental health challenges than in past years. Key findings included:

  • Nearly 4 in 10 college students indicated symptoms of depression, with 2 in 10 screening positive for major depression.
  • College students are anxious: Thirty-four percent of students had a positive screening for anxiety, with 16% screening positive for severe anxiety.
  • More than 10% of college students had suicidal thoughts, with 6% admitting to having made a suicide plan in the last year.
  • Over 10% of students screened positive for an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia.
  • More than 80% of students reported having one or more days a month in which mental or emotional health challenges hurt their academic performance.
  • In addition, 6 in 10 students experienced feelings of loneliness, with 66% of students feeling isolated and 62% reporting that they lacked companionship at least some of the time.

Depression

We all get sad at times, but depression is a consistent mood of sadness. It is a mood disorder characterized by feelings of hopelessness and sorrow. Among college students, LGBTQ students and students of color are at significant risk of developing depression.

While there are several types of depression, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) list the following common symptoms:

  • Extreme sadness for extended periods of time
  • Feelings of hopelessness or despondency
  • Loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed
  • Feelings of worthlessness and helplessness
  • Change of appetite or weight
  • Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping

How to get help: Depression is sometimes a cause of students dropping out of college. And in some cases, depression can lead to suicide, the NIH reported. Even severe depression can be treated, so it’s important to get the help you need. Treatment might include psychotherapy, medication or a combination of the two. You can also take steps to help yourself by exercising, spending time with friends and family and confiding in a trusted person.

Anxiety

It is normal to feel a little nervous before a big exam, a job interview or a similarly stressful situation, but anxiety lasts longer and may get worse over time. Anxiety disorders can hurt your ability to go to class, socialize, study or even sleep.

There are several types of anxiety:

Type Symptoms
Generalized anxiety disorder ● Having consistent feelings of worry or fear about health, work, social life and everyday interactions
● Sleep problems, such as difficulty falling or staying asleep and feelings of restlessness
Social anxiety disorder ● Fear of social interactions
● Worrying about being judged by others
● Avoidance of social settings
Panic disorder ● Unexpected and recurring panic attacks
● Accelerated heartbeat
● Feelings of terror or being out of control

In addition, anxiety also includes specific phobias, such as agoraphobia, which can involve fear of crowds.

How to get help: If you experience anxiety, there are several ways you can get help, but consult with a doctor to determine the best option for you. You might want to consider psychotherapy or, if appropriate, anti-anxiety or antidepressant medicines prescribed by a medical professional. Likewise, engaging in exercise and other physical activity may help you manage your anxiety.

Substance use disorders

Substance abuse is no stranger to college campuses, whether at parties or even at late-night study sessions. According to research, nearly half of college students binge drink alcohol, and nearly 1 in 5 college students do so regularly. Up to a third of college students have misused stimulants, such as Adderall.

A substance use disorder is a mental disorder that can lead to a person’s inability to control their consumption of alcohol or drugs, whether legal or illegal. It may be associated with other mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety.

How to get help: Substance abuse and substance use disorders can sometimes contribute to the development of other mental health issues. Substance use can also lead to academic problems, including poor grades or even dropping out. If you suffer from a substance use disorder, consult a doctor about the best treatment plan. It might include individual or group therapy, medication or some combination of these.

Eating disorders

Eating disorders are not dieting, nor are they a lifestyle choice. Rather, an eating disorder is a serious mental illness that affects a person’s eating behaviors and thoughts about food.

These disorders are most common among young adult women, and college is a common setting for them to occur.

While there are many variations of this illness, two types of eating disorders are:

Type Symptoms
Anorexia nervosa ● Fear of gaining weight and relentless pursuit of being skinny
● Holding a distorted image of one’s body
Bulimia nervosa ● Eating large amounts of food, followed by purging through self-induced vomiting or laxatives

How to get help: Treatment is important because eating disorders may put a person at a higher risk for other medical problems and even for suicide. Consult with a doctor about the right treatment plan for your situation. Some methods might include individual or group therapy, nutritional counseling and even medical care and observation.

Suicide

Suicide can be related to any of the mental illnesses discussed above. As the second-leading cause of death among people age 10-34 in the U.S. in 2019, suicide is a serious mental health concern for college students.

How to get help: If you are in crisis or have any thoughts of suicide whatsoever, it’s definitely worth your time to call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This free and confidential service is available to anyone, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

If student loan debt is harming your mental health

Whether or not you’re still in college, any student loan you have might be a significant cause of stress. According to a 2020 Student Loan Hero study, student loan borrowers are more than twice as likely to feel depressed about their finances as those without student loans.

If this situation sounds familiar, and you are facing anxiety or depression because of your student loans, there are steps you can take to get help.

First of all, you can learn strategies to cope, such as seeking treatment from a medical professional and reaching out to supportive friends and family for support. You can look into adjusting your student loan payment plan if you have federal loans — or consider refinancing if you have private loans.

You could also speak with your employer’s human resources department for guidance or to see if your employer has any programs to help with repayment. There are also some public options to help repay your educational debt.

No matter what your situation, there are resources to find help.

Paul Sisolak contributed to this report.

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