college stress

Understanding the College Years and Mental Health

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(by Dawson McAllister)

College Years and Mental Health

(This post was first published on TheHopeLine® for young adults and adapted for this site.)

Sending a student off to college is filled with mixed emotions. You’re excited for them; you’re nervous for them. You’re sad to see them leave; you’re happy they’re taking this next step in their lives. You have tears and pride all mixed together for the college years.

Likewise most college students are balancing the same mix of emotions while also managing a new level of stress that college years bring. Just think of some of the stressors a college student faces:

Top College Stressors

  • Away from home for the first time.
  • Need to make decisions on their own.
  • Time management is hard with a flexible, but full schedule.
  • Choosing a major and deciding what they want to do with the rest of their life
  • Pressure to achieve good grades.
  • Financial stress. College is expensive and debt is mounting.
  • Balancing studying, class time, relationships, extra-curricular, social life, spiritual life, etc.
  • Easier access to alcohol and drugs.
  • Being frustrated and wanting instant gratification when it’s not available.

It’s not a surprise that students can quickly feel overwhelmed.

In fact, the American College Health Association found in a 2015 study that more than 85 percent of college students said they “felt overwhelmed” by the demands of college. And a third of all students said stress had a negative effect on their overall academic performance.

It is important for us to prepare students to manage the stress of college, and I include some stress-reducing tips below that you can share with them.

However, it is also important to talk with them before they head off to college about the difference between normal stress and mental illness.

Here’s why…

Mental Health Concerns in College

75% of all mental health conditions begin by age 24. So the possibility of someone developing a mental health condition while in college is common. It is critical that college students are aware of some warning signs of a mental health condition because recognizing whether their feelings are based on adjusting to life away from home or if it is because they are experiencing an early sign of a mental health condition is crucial.

1 in 5 youth and young adults experiences a mental health condition and 30% of college students reported feeling so down at some point during the previous year that they found it difficult to function.

As parents or loved ones of a student, we need to let them know it’s o.k. to talk about any emotional struggles or feelings of anxiety that they may be feeling. It may be difficult for them to know whether they are experiencing an early sign of an emerging mental health condition or if it’s simply part of adjusting to college. They don’t have to know the answer to this question before talking to someone.

Regardless, encouraging them to talk to a counselor or a parent if they are not feeling right and are having trouble shaking that feeling can make all the difference. They need to know there is help available and they are NOT alone in their feelings.

10 Common Warning Signs of a Mental Health Condition

  1. Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
  2. Severe, out-of-control risk-taking behaviors
  3. Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason
  4. Not eating, throwing up or using laxatives to lose weight
  5. Seeing, hearing or believing things that are not real
  6. Repeatedly and excessively using drugs or alcohol
  7. Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality or sleeping habits
  8. Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying stil
  9. Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities
  10. Trying to harm oneself or planning to do so

I can’t emphasize this enough…

Mental health conditions are common among college students so let’s help get rid of the stigma with our own students. Let them know they don’t need to hide from you from what they are feeling. You can handle their burden and share it with them. You want to help.

So now for those stress-reducing tips…

Every student can benefit from a few strategies to help keep their stress level in check:

10 Tips for Reducing Stress at College

  1. Make To Do List and cross things off – this will keep you organized and keep you from forgetting to do something as well as give you a feeling of accomplishment every time you cross something off.
  2. Make time to exercise – walk, run, bike, lift weights…whatever you like. Your years in college you essentially have a free fitness membership. Take advantage of it. Physical activity helps burn off stress.
  3. Get enough sleep – Sleep and college may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s crucial that your body rest. Without proper rest you won’t be able to focus as well, you will nod to sleep in class and might very well get run down and sick. All things that will add to your stress.
  4. Participate in college activities – Make sure you make time for fun and to connect with other people. Join a club, play intramural sports, volunteer, attend a college event such as a concert, play or game. You can find all that your college has to offer on their website or attend an activities fair. A balanced schedule includes things that allow you to take a break from studying, meet new people and have fun.
  5. Quiet time with relaxing music – Sometimes it’s important to just breath and relax and music often helps.
  6. Talk to others about what you are feeling – Sometimes it just feels good to vent to share your burden with someone you trust. You can also learn a lot from people who are experiencing the same things as you. How do they manage their stress? Are they also feeling overwhelmed? You will fast learn you are not necessarily alone.
  7. Eat healthy – Good nutrition also helps keep your mind sharp and focused. Pay attention to what you are putting in your body.
  8. Avoid alcohol and drugs – Substance abuse certainly does not help you stay strong and focused and can quickly lead down a destruction path.
  9. Self-Care – Make sure to treat yourself as kindly as you treat others. Self-care is provided by you for Identify your own needs and meet them. This includes being aware of your mental health needs and recognizing if it is time to seek help.
  10. Pray – Spend time in prayer with God…you can pray at all times. As you walk to class, as you sit in the library, as you work out, during your quiet time, etc. Share with God all that you are feeling, pray about the concerns you have and what is causing you to worry. Ask Him for the focus you need or the strength to go on. Nothing is too big or small to ask of God. Then as you pray trust that God will see you through and release your anxieties to Him. He loves you and he will help you. It says in the Bible Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”

For more Bible verses for comfort when you are stressed – Verses of Hope

College is an exciting time in life. And these years can be even more enjoyable and successful when students understand the importance of self-care, stress management and seeking help when they need to.

Check out the College Guide from the National Alliance on Mental Illness for even more information.

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