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Mental Health in College Students

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

November 10, 2023 (Originally Published)

May 21, 2024 (Last Updated)

Table of Contents

Mental health in college students has been described as an epidemic of mental health.

Starting college is associated with many new aspects of life opening out: freedom, autonomy, independence, and opportunity.

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Research since the coronavirus pandemic prompted a general decline in mental health among U.S. citizens shows that college students’ mental health is in crisis:

  • One in three U.S. students reported experiencing a mental health condition in 2020.
  • One in four U.S. students reported taking psychiatric medications.
  • One in five U.S. students reported suicidal ideation.
  • Rates of major depressive disorder on campus have doubled during the past decade.

What is happening in contemporary culture that is negatively influencing the mental health of so many college students, and what can be done about it?

What Causes Mental Health Issues in College Students?

There are many different variables that predispose college students to mental health issues, although some mental illnesses are more prevalent than others.

The most common examples of mental health issues impacting students today include:

  • Depression: Depression is among the most common mental health disorders in the U.S. Major depressive disorder is characterized by persistent feelings of sadness accompanied by a lack of interest in activities and a loss of pleasure.
  • Anxiety disorders: Anxiety involves excessive worry that doesn’t subside even when there is no stressor to trigger anxiety.
  • Substance use disorder: Mental health and substance use disorders are closely interlinked. Both issues are affecting college students across the United States – more on that below.
  • Eating disorders: Disordered eating habits like anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. These illnesses typically present between the ages of 18 and 21, coinciding for many with the college experience.
  • Self-harm: Research shows that roughly one in five U.S. college students has engaged in self-harm.
  • Suicidal thoughts: An increasing and disturbingly high proportion of college students in the United States report experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Many factors have coalesced to create a perfect storm for a decline in mental health among college students.

Even before COVID triggered complications nationwide, the emotional and mental health of students was already strained. Young adults starting a college course experience many potential stressors, from dramatic change and disruption to loneliness, and anxiety.

With the additional strains caused by the pandemic worsening things, and improved access to college meaning more young adults than ever pursue further education, it is unsurprising that so many students report unstable mental health.

This key study of the mental health of college students groups the main causes for poor mental health among students as follows:

  1. Academic pressures
  2. Social risk factors
  3. Psychosocial factors
  4. Lifestyle
  5. Substance abuse
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1) Academic pressures

Academic pressure is perhaps the primary cause of mental health issues among students.

The desire to achieve high grades and the immense pressure to succeed academically can increase stress and anxiety.

Overwork can lead to fatigue, sleep deprivation, and neglected self-care, all liable to bring about related mental health issues.

Worries about uncertainty, future career paths, and the need to secure full-time employment after graduation can all contribute to a variety of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.

2) Social risk factors

While college can be an intensely social experience for many, the college experience for others is defined by loneliness and social isolation. This problem has worsened with the advent and predominance of distance learning. Remote learning may deliver many benefits, but it also reduces interactions with peers.

3) Psychosocial factors

This study suggests that social disadvantages like poverty and subpar housing pose a significant risk to the mental health of college students.

Financial stress also increases the risk of trauma and abuse. Research shows that some preconditions from early childhood – neglect, abuse, and trauma – can worsen when the individual transitions from high school to college.

Bullying and social discrimination in a college setting can also impact academic performance and trigger mental health conditions.

College students are also liable to be exposed to various psychological stressors that can impair mental health.

4) Lifestyle changes

Moving away from home and starting an independent life can be enormously disruptive for those of college age. Most students find themselves making significant lifestyle changes and many also change their behaviors.

Being surrounded by peers rather than family and enjoying a new level of autonomy, many students find themselves developing destructive and negative habits that can trigger problems with mental health.

5) Substance abuse

Alcohol abuse – binge drinking in particular – is prevalent in American colleges. According to NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism), almost one in ten college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder (the clinical descriptor for alcoholism).

Substance use is also rife on campus with students experimenting with a wide range of drugs, from prescription medications like opioids, benzodiazepines, and stimulants through to illicit drugs such as:

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Molly
  • LSD

Substance abuse is closely associated with mental health disorders. When addiction and mental health conditions present at the same time, this is known as dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder. Both conditions can play into each other and require integrated treatment for best results.

How to Improve Mental Health in College Students

Here are some simple steps to help you improve your mental health while at college:

  • Create and maintain a routine
  • Build firm and positive friendships
  • Set and chart small, achievable goals
  • Reach out for help when you need it

Create and maintain a routine

If you are finding the amount of work you need to complete at college is overwhelming you, create a basic schedule for each week. Prioritize attending any live classes scheduled for the way. Create time blocks for study and assignments.

Crucially, include non-negotiable time blocks for self-care and recreation.

If you find yourself missing blocks, do not allow this to derail you. Instead, think about what caused you to miss the scheduled event and learn from the experience while recommitting to making the next session.

Build firm and positive friendships

Developing new friendships at college can be a process of trial and error. It takes time to adjust to the absence of old high school friends and the familiarity of those friendships.

You will meet lots of new people at college, and you should take the time to reflect on the relationships that make you feel good. Nurture those relationships. Conversely, if you find yourself spending increasing amounts of time surrounded by toxic individuals or those who drain your energy, it could be time to rethink those budding friendships.

Set and chart small, achievable goals

One of the main stressors encountered by college students worldwide is the feeling of falling behind with work.

Rather than taking a purely deadline-driven approach and only starting an assignment when that deadline is looming, start projects as soon as possible by devoting small chunks of time to complete certain tasks. If you suffer from procrastination or anxiety, setting and monitoring small goals can help you to maintain progress at college.

For those looking to initiate positive lifestyle changes, the same approach of measuring small and achievable goals can help new habits to get traction.

Reach out for help when you need it

Mental illness is becoming much less stigmatized, and you should always reach out for help if you feel that your mental health is suffering.

Most colleges will offer an array of counseling and therapy services, allowing you to work with a counselor or therapist to explore any mental health concerns you may have.

Let friends and family know about your struggles rather than isolating yourself or self-medicating the symptoms with alcohol or drugs.

For those who need immediate assistance, we can help you with that here at Renaissance Recovery.

Find Mental Health Treatment at Renaissance Recovery

If you or a college-aged son or daughter are experiencing mental health issues, we provide a variety of treatment programs here at Renaissance Recovery.

Maybe you have been reluctant to engage with treatment because you feel that you can’t take a month or more away from classes. With outpatient therapy, you can remain anchored to your academic commitments while also prioritizing your mental health and engaging with a treatment program.

For those who have addictions co-occurring with mental health conditions, we provide integrated and coordinated dual diagnosis treatment. This allows you to address both conditions simultaneously and to move away from a life influenced by addiction and unstable mental health.

Whether you choose a traditional outpatient program, an IOP (intensive outpatient program), or a PHP (partial hospitalization program), you will have access to the following interventions at Renaissance:

From depression to anxiety, from bipolar disorder to PTSD, we can help you get back on track however severe the mental health disorder. Start improving your mental health right now by reaching out for help at 866.330.9449.

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At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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