College Life

Minding Your Mental Health

Knowing when you need a break and when you need help

By Sarah Harte

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Most of us know that it’s important to take care of our physical health. We try to eat fruits and vegetables regularly, get some exercise on most days, and even shoot for those precious eight hours of sleep. However, few of us are taught the same lessons and strategies for taking care of our mental health. Family members, mentors, and professors aren’t always comfortable with these topics themselves, so students can feel unprepared for the adjustments and challenges that they will face while in college. It can be even more difficult to determine the difference between coping with a normal level of stress and needing to seek help for more significant mental health problems. 

The World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) definition of health highlights the positive aspects of health, noting that “health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Further, WHO defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. Doesn’t that sound like all of our hopes for college life, and beyond? If most of us strive for this state of being, why don’t we talk about it more?

Changing the conversation about mental health

If you are like most college students, you and your friends and classmates spend lots of time talking about being stressed, tired, and overwhelmed. That is normal—college is hard, the chemical sciences are challenging, and there is an inherent vulnerability in learning that makes many people feel uncomfortable. Feeling stressed is a normal response to the pressures of school. Stress can even be helpful at times. A moderate amount of stress can help us focus, motivate us to study, and get us to class on time. Chronic stress, however, can be toxic and self-perpetuating. Stressed people don’t sleep well. Sleepless people struggle more with solving difficult problems. People who can’t solve problems lie awake worrying about them, and then it becomes even more difficult to tackle the work.

Life outside of the classroom can be challenging, too. Many students struggle with worries about paying for college and related expenses, making friends, feeling lonely and homesick, and feeling overwhelmed with being independent. Who knew keeping up with laundry and getting three meals a day could be so stressful? And don’t even get me started on how difficult it is to manage roommate situations! To make things even harder, there is a culture on campuses and on social media that pressures people to look like they have it all figured out, when lots of people don’t! In one recent survey, almost half of first-year college students reported that “it seems like everyone has college figured out but me”.

This perception can contribute to the belief that you have to perform perfectly to make it in college, or to the feeling that you really don’t belong and soon everyone will figure that out! Perfectionism and imposter syndrome can contribute to harmful thought processes that are all too common on college campuses, fostering an environment of competition that hurts more than it helps. Both of these thought patterns include all-or-nothing thinking, which eliminates the space in the middle where learning and flexibility occur. One way to challenge these thoughts is to talk with professors, mentors, or family members—ask them whether they have struggled with these problems and what they have done to overcome them. You might be surprised how many of them felt just like you when they were in school and even still have to work to overcome harmful thought patterns.

Despite the normal experience of significant stress in college and what can seem like constant talking about that stress, we don’t often talk about what to do about it, or how to feel better. This can create a feedback loop of negativity that can worsen the cycle with time. It is also true that our brains tend to focus more on the negative feedback we receive than the positive. It’s no wonder that students start to struggle with managing all of these stressors in the college environment.

You can change this narrative. You can be the voice of resilience and support in your communities. This is a role that not only helps your community but also can help you to be more mindful of your own well-being. This doesn’t mean that you need to be cheery all of the time; that’s not how life goes. It is simply an opportunity to become more aware of the tendency to focus on the negative, and to work to notice and acknowledge your wins at least as often as you acknowledge your losses. When you count wins, it becomes easier to gain perspective and to know that all is not lost, that you’ve got this! A win can be as simple as showing up for a class that you are dreading, or earning a grade in the middle of the curve of a really difficult exam, or even managing to have some fun in the midst of midterms or finals.

When challenges are more than stress and adjustment

In addition to the already difficult experience of college, many students also struggle with mental health conditions. Surveys suggest that up to 39% of undergraduate students deal with some kind of mental health problem, such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder. Most mental health issues begin at the same time of life as college, with 75% of mental health problems developing by the age of 24. It can be difficult to determine what is normal stress and what may be something more, but there are clues that you can keep in mind.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health conditions on college campuses. We all feel anxiety; think about the butterflies you feel in your stomach before an in-class presentation—that’s anxiety. Anxiety disorders, however, are when anxiety gets out of control and causes significant disruption in day-to-day functioning. Anxiety disorders cause anxiety or fear to be out of proportion to what is going on, and that anxiety is difficult to control. People who experience anxiety can feel queasiness in their stomach, experience pressure in their heart or chest, have shaky or trembling hands, and have difficulty concentrating. Their sleep and appetite are usually affected—typically by getting less sleep and eating less, but it can also be the opposite: sleeping and eating too much.

Depression is the second most common mental health issue on college campuses. Depressive disorders are not simply feeling down or sad. They are conditions that cause a significant change in your mood that can last for a long time—even months—without help. People with depression often have a constant state of sadness or heaviness. They have a hard time doing the things that they used to really enjoy or spending time with people, and can find it difficult to take care of themselves—sleeping too much or too little, eating too much or not enough, and having a hard time leaving their room or getting to class.

Regardless of the type of mental health issue someone may be struggling with, people typically display some or all of the following warning signs:

  • They don’t feel like hanging out as much
  • Their mind seems to be somewhere else
  • They talk about feeling hopeless
  • They are taking more risks
  • They are using more drugs or alcohol
  • They are so anxious that they can’t relax
  • They have become negative about life
  • They are acting weird or get mad for no reason
  • Their eating or sleeping patterns change
  • Their usual ways of dealing with things are not working
  • They have thoughts or impulses of self-harm or harming others

Importantly, you don’t have to be a mental health professional to recognize these signs and to intervene. If you see some of these characteristics in someone, you can be the one to help. Even the most severe mental health problems can get better when someone is able to access help, and you can be the one to assist someone in getting the help they need. You don’t even need to know what to say; try saying, “I’ve noticed you seem down lately. Do you want to talk about what’s going on?” or “Whenever you’re ready to talk, I’m ready to listen.” The important thing isn’t what you say, it’s that you start the conversation. Once you get the conversation started, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Keep the conversation casual
  • Listen and let them take the lead in the conversation
  • Try to avoid offering advice
  • Validate how they are feeling
  • Don’t push them to talk about anything they are not ready to share
  • Let them know you are available and would never judge them
  • Encourage them to talk to a professional

If you have any concerns that a friend is having thoughts of suicide, it is very important to ask about this directly. You can say something like, “Are you feeling like you’d like to give up on things or on life?” or more directly “Are you having thoughts about hurting or killing yourself?” You won’t plant the idea of suicide into a person’s thoughts by mentioning it. 

The benefits of asking someone whether they are having suicidal thoughts greatly outweigh the risks, and people report that being asked about this directly brings more relief than holding onto the thoughts and not talking about them. If your friend acknowledges suicidal thoughts, it’s important to get help right away.

How to get help

Most students have some kind of emotional challenge while in college, and many cope with the support of friends, family members, faith communities, and other supporters. However, there are times when professional help is needed, and the sooner someone is connected to professional help, the sooner they can start to feel better. When you are not sure whether you can provide enough support to someone you are concerned about, it is always a good idea to encourage them to connect with a mental health professional—a counselor, social worker, or psychologist. Most college campuses have some kind of mental health support resources, which are often low-cost or free. These services follow federal confidentiality laws and are equipped to work with students to resolve their concerns, or connect them to the appropriate resources in the community. They often have late-night, after-hours, or 24-hour support by phone, so don’t hesitate to find the help when you need it. Take a look at your university’s resources to learn about the support services available on your campus.

Although it is important to get professional help, emotional well-being is not only the work of the counselors on your campus, it is the responsibility of the whole community. Residential staff, academic advisors, librarians, facility managers, campus police, and faculty, among others, should be trained in recognizing when someone is in distress and be prepared to help connect students with support. So, if you’re not sure where to start to get help, ask someone, anyone!

Outside of campus-based support services, there are several national emergency support lines that you can call or text when you need help (listed below). These lines are staffed by trained crisis counselors, who can help you feel better and connect you to local resources. Privacy can be hard to find in residence halls and university buildings, so lots of students find it more comfortable to text crisis counselors. These support lines serve anyone, in any type of crisis. 

Emergency Resources
  • Crisis Textline: Text HOME to 741-741
  • Crisis Textline for Students of Color: Text STEVE to 741-741
  • National Suicide Hotline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • LGBTQ Trevor Lifeline: Call 1-866-488-7386
  • Trans Lifeline: Call 1-877-565-8860
  • On-Campus Health Center: Check local center for hours
Resources for Managing Mental Health

About the Author

Sarah Harte is the Assistant Director of Outreach at George Washington University's Colonial Health Center. A licensed social worker in Washington, DC, she has worked in college mental health and she was an adjunct lecturer at the Columbia University of Social Work.