If you’re a college student and feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. While there’s plenty of encouraging news to share when it comes to students’ mental health, there’s also some disheartening news you should know first.
The hard news is that college students are experiencing all-time high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality, according to the latest Healthy Minds survey. In this survey, which reflected responses from 96,000 U.S. students across 133 campuses during the 2021–2022 academic year, 44% reported symptoms of depression, 37% said they experienced anxiety, and 15% said they have seriously considered suicide — the highest rates in the survey’s 15-year history.
Here’s the upside: The survey also showed that students are now getting more help than ever before, as 37% of respondents said they’ve received mental health counseling in the past year — a 7% increase from 2020.
This guide is another piece of good news. It’s a resource-rich digital doc with abundant links and ideas to help you persevere and overcome your mental health challenges. Keep reading to add yet another tool to your arsenal of ways to keep your mental health in check.
Awareness of Common College Mental Health Struggles
Think about some of the common challenges you may be facing in online college. School deadline pressures, financial burdens, work expectations, and the stresses inherent to new adulthood all combine during this precarious time to pose a significant risk to your mental health. It helps to know you’re not alone. Below, you’ll get insight into common struggles, learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms, and gain coping strategies to help you manage each challenge. Here are a few of the most common mental health struggles you’ll face in college.
What can cause this: Stress during college is caused by a variety of factors, and all students will have their own personal triggers. Maybe you’re trying to balance work and school for the first time, so you feel overwhelmed by your schedule. Or perhaps online school is proving a bit more academically challenging than you’re used to. You’re also likely facing the struggles inherent to building new friendships, trying to figure out how to pay for your new adult life, and — oh yeah, — figuring out what you want to do and be in your not-so-distant future.
How to recognize the signs/symptoms: Suffolk University compiled an incredible resource that explores the signs of stress, breaking them down into four categories: physical, behavioral, emotional, and intellectual.
Coping strategies: Because many of the burdens during college that cause stress involve time or lack thereof, the most significant coping strategies often involve making the most of the time you have. Find your favorite time management techniques, and don’t forget to build fun and sleep into your schedule. Managing stress is such an important topic which is why we’ve also dedicated an entire guide to it here.
Anxiety and Depression
What can cause this: Research shows that anxiety and depression in college-age students are at their peak in the first year of college. This suggests that the biggest source of mental health challenges in college may be transition and upheaval. You’re doing brand new things in life, often untethered by the community of family and friends who have always supported you. You’re probably experiencing more sleeplessness and potentially eating less healthily, which can contribute to anxiety and depression.
How to recognize the signs/symptoms: Mayo Clinic compiled a guide about depression in college students, citing symptoms that include:
- Difficulty with schoolwork
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- Emotional outbursts, such as tearfulness, anger, or irritability
- Lack of energy or fatigue
- Poor self-esteem
- Sense of overwhelm
- Thoughts of suicide or self-harm
Coping strategies: Depression can be treated with medication, talk therapy, or a combination of both. If you have anxiety, you may find that online school is actually a coping strategy in itself. The University of Minnesota lists the reasons why.
Loneliness or Homesickness
What can cause this: For many students, this is your first time away from the comforts of home. For others, you may be disconnecting from the core friendship circle you’ve had since childhood. Regardless, loneliness is common during college years, and even students who don’t have a strong family unit or social circle may feel a longing to return to the comforts of home during this transitional time.
How to recognize the signs/symptoms: If you’re new to college and feeling sad, lonely, or irritable, the chances are good you’re homesick, and you’ve got plenty of company. A whopping 94% of new college students experience homesickness during their first 10 weeks in college.
Coping strategies: It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best strategies is to stay connected to your old sources of social support, even if talking to your parents or friends makes your longing more intense. You need to do this while also practicing other techniques, like creating a new routine, connecting with other students (who are likely feeling the same way you are), and exploring new opportunities at your school.
What can cause this: Even if you and your significant other have the best of intentions, the stress inherent to being in college can lead to major relationship struggles. You’re likely both facing similar academic, financial, and life challenges simultaneously, which can create a perfect storm of turmoil.
How to recognize the signs/symptoms: If you find yourselves in a cycle of unrest in your relationship — good times consistently and quickly devolving to bad, which may include unhealthy outbursts and behaviors — you may be experiencing trouble.
Coping strategies: Southern Utah University offers practical, applicable tips for healthy relationships in college, including wise suggestions for fighting fair. It’s important to be a good listener and communicator, but you must also take care of yourself and make sure you’re being heard.
What can cause this: College may be your first time away from parental or guardian supervision. For some students, this means experimenting for the first time with drugs and alcohol. During college, you’ll also reach the age where alcohol is legal, which may result in overuse or abuse, potentially resulting in bad habits or addiction.
How to recognize the signs/symptoms: American Addiction Centers offers a guide to substance abuse in college that offers a list of the signs to watch for, including routinely skipping classes, avoiding friends, lying, withdrawal symptoms, and risky behavior while intoxicated.
Coping strategies: The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Association offers a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service hotline (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. Call or visit 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Lifestyle changes you’ll need to make may include avoiding the people with whom you typically use drugs and alcohol, setting a quit date, and building a support network.
What can cause this: Let’s face it, your time in college is typically not synonymous with a period of healthy eating. You’ll likely never eat as much cheap pizza, ramen, and fast food in your entire life, making gaining that freshman 15 a common experience. With these changes in diet come behaviors and feelings that may lead to eating disorders.
How to recognize the signs/symptoms: Your specific signs will vary based on your disorder. Check out this comprehensive list of the physical, emotional, and behavioral signs you may have an eating disorder from the National Eating Disorder Association.
Coping strategies: Getting professional help is the first strategy to address an eating disorder. As part of this assistance, you may be asked to keep a food diary to record when you eat and how you feel when you eat. Check with your school’s mental health services to see if there is a community of students you can join who share your struggle.
What can cause this: In your earlier education, you likely had teachers and guardians there to keep you on track and ensure you were thriving — acting as your “bumpers” in the game of bowling for good grades. Now the bumpers are down, so you may be feeling like the game just got a whole lot more challenging.
How to recognize the signs/symptoms: Everyone has a bad day, week, or class occasionally, but consistently skipping class because you feel like you’re falling behind, endless procrastination on major assignments, and test anxiety may be signs you’re struggling.
Coping strategies: We like this extensive list of coping strategies from the University of Maryland’s Counseling Center. Along with considering the factors mentioned there, you’ll also need to develop new academic routines and time management skills, find friends to form study groups, and learn about (and then taking advantage of) the academic resources available at your college.
What can cause this: If you’re new to adulthood, you’re probably starting to realize that with this new stage of life comes a host of personal changes. When you’re experiencing big transitions like going to college for the first time, your self-confidence can take a big hit.
How to recognize the signs/symptoms: This is a mental health challenge that is most often recognized by reflecting on your thought patterns and self-talk. Does the voice inside your head sound mostly negative? Do you find yourself taking everything personally? Do you find it easy to turn a positive into a negative? If any of these ring true, you may be experiencing self-confidence issues.
Coping strategies: Weber State University’s Counseling & Psychological Services Center has compiled a list of techniques for improving self-esteem.
What to Do if You Need Help
Simply reviewing the long list of struggles you might be facing as an online college student might be triggering a bit of anxiety and stress. You’re not alone in your feelings, and in addition to the student resources we’ve already supplied, we have more ways to help below. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to ensuring your mental health is kept in focus, so you’ll need to think about how you’ll most benefit from the resources at your disposal. Here are a few ideas.
If you or someone you know is showing signs of suicide or being in crisis and at risk of suicide, do not wait, get help right away! You can call the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline by dialing 988 and talk to someone who can help immediately.
Talk to Someone You Trust
Have you ever noticed how overwhelming it can be to sit alone with your thoughts? That’s why the first step to ensuring your optimal mental health might be sharing these thoughts with others. Gaining perspective from friends, family, or trusted colleagues can go a long way toward mitigating some of the stress you’re feeling. Better yet, those in your social network might have ideas about how you can best address your challenges.
According to a University of South Florida article on mental health, “…spending time with friends releases feel-good hormones and even makes life look less scary — literally.” The article summarizes a study in which researchers outfitted students with heavy backpacks and asked them to stand at the bottom of a hill with a 26-degree incline. When students stood alone, they guessed that the hill was very steep, but when they stood next to a friend, their guesses were less daunting. Further, “…the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.” The takeaway: Confide in a friend or loved one to gain perspective and tackle your own hills in a far less daunting way.
Seek Professional Help
While recent years have introduced us to significant contributors to our levels of stress, including a pandemic, wars, and even social and racial justice issues, we’re also living through a time when access to professional help is quite literally at our fingertips. As an online college student, you probably have a campus counseling center at your disposal. Many appointments don’t require you to visit an office, as Zoom appointments are conveniently commonplace. You also have access to apps offering different kinds and calibers of resources.
If you’re looking to form a relationship with a therapist, make sure you research their qualifications. You’ll also want to find someone who is a good personality match. The American Psychological Association has valuable ideas about how to research and vet your therapist.
Hotlines You Can Call
If you need immediate help for a mental health crisis, hotlines can be lifesavers. Psycom, a popular U.S.-based website that focuses exclusively on mental health, offers this exhaustive list of hotlines for mental health, including hotlines for other countries and for specific groups, such as members of the LGBTQIA+ community or veterans. For all mental health matters, simply dial 988. In July 2022, this universal Suicide and Crisis Lifeline launched nationwide and can connect you to a crisis counselor, regardless of where you are in the United States.
School-Based Resources for College Students
As a college student, you’re likely surrounded by mental health resources — you just may not know it yet. That’s where the following list of school-based options comes in handy. Research your own college to see how many of the following are at your disposal.
Student Counseling Programs
Many schools offer free mental health and counseling resources to currently enrolled students. Here’s an example from Saint Paul College in Minnesota. If you’re an online student or an on-campus student who’d prefer remote access, many of these appointments can be conducted via Zoom or another online platform. Spend time researching your school’s counseling offerings to see if you might be able to take advantage of this resource.
Mental Health Workshops & Programs
With health and wellness garnering a significant amount of attention nationally, many local colleges and universities make a host of workshops available to their students. The library of health and wellness workshops available at California State University, San Bernardino, for example, have notable related offerings in mindfulness, stress management, and healthy boundaries. Some workshops might happen in person, while others are recordings you can watch on your own time.
Many students find that the best mental health practice is the act of sharing experiences and thoughts with other students who’ve been there, done that or are there and are doing that. Support groups covering various topics are common on college campuses, like the support groups at Crafton Hills College in California. You might find groups dedicated to stress management, making connections, trauma recovery, and more at your college or university.
Mental Health Hotlines
Remember, students who find themselves needing immediate assistance may be best served by quickly and conveniently connecting with a mental health hotline. While there are hotlines dedicated to all types of needs (find a comprehensive list here), you can always dial 988 or visit the universal Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
Academic Support Resources
Tutors, writing centers, disability resources, IT support, and language assistance are just some of the kinds of academic support services that are commonplace on most college campuses. If you’re an online student, most of these offerings are also available remotely. Research your school to see if it has a menu of academic support, like the ones available at the University of Pennsylvania. Better yet, most of these are offered free of charge, or at considerably discounted rates, for current students.
Student Health Services
Depression is just one example of a mental health concern that also is a medical condition. If your mental health challenges are tied to your physical health, be sure to take advantage of the student health services offered at your college or university, such as the resources available from Oregon State University. You can often get immunizations, contraceptive care, and preventive care right on campus, and your doctor should be able to connect you with the mental health resources you’ll need as well.
Self-Care Tips for Stress Management & Reduction
While a reminder of the breadth of resources available to you is important to bolstering your mental health, so is this tip: Optimal mental health often begins with dedicated and consistent self-care. Below, find some tips for navigating and maintaining your mental health while you’re in college.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Whether you take time daily to meditate or simply practice a mindfulness activity dedicated to breath focus, devoting your attention to such practices can have significant benefits to your school experience. Take these mindfulness tips offered by Rebecca Enderby, who was a PhD student at Kings College London when she wrote them. She offers practical ways you can use time in your home or in class to reorient your brain and body toward peace and calm.
Exercise and Healthy Eating
Remember that ramen and cold pizza we addressed earlier? While cheap and convenient, these types of foods have sky-high levels of unnecessary additives like sodium and fail to contribute to your body’s dietary balance. Make sure you’re getting plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables daily, and reduce your consumption of caffeine and alcohol. Need tips for planning your healthy college diet? Clarke University has 10 tips to help you get started as well as our guide to student nutrition.
Getting Enough Sleep
A common depiction of college says that you can pick two out of three of the following: good grades, a social life, or sleep. However, achieving balance comes from all the above, and while it seems counterintuitive, research shows your grades may improve if you get more sleep. It’s science! Practicing good sleep hygiene involves trying to go to bed and wake up at the same or similar times daily, reducing screen time before bed, and creating a before-sleep routine that works for you. Get more tips from Snow College as well as our guide to better student sleep.
Drink Enough Water
We’re all aware of the importance of drinking water. Our Hydro Flasks and Stanley water bottles are always on our desks reminding us, after all. While common lore suggests that we’re all supposed to drink at least eight cups every day, an article from Harvard Medical School says there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, you must consider your activity level, your health, age, and even the weather. The bottom line is that drinking water contributes to our physical, emotional, and mental health.
Take Time for Yourself
Here’s another mind-blowing recommendation: To perform better in school, you need to build more time into your schedule for things other thanschool. Even your college likely agrees, as illustrated by this article from Southern New Hampshire University. Self-care looks different for everyone, so the important takeaway is to figure out what your body needs, whether it’s a weekly bowling night with your friends, a weekend day highlighted by sleep and fro-yo for dessert, or a daily 30-minute outing in nature, then feed your body and soul accordingly.
Build and Maintain a Support Network
Perhaps no other time in your adult life will you need a support network more than right now, while you’re in college and navigating those pesky daily challenges. It’s important to identify your squad — the people who have your back, no matter what. You’ll need different sources of support for different challenges, so look for trusted friends, family members, work colleagues, and even other students to recruit as part of your personal team.
Additional Mental Health Resources for College Students
McLean Hospital hosts this digital talk that explores the state of mental health and provides a roadmap for navigating mental health struggles in higher education.
Developed by the Mental Health Coalition, this guide is designed to equip college students with the resources, services, and support needed to thrive as they transition into the beginning of adult life.
College students can use data as a powerful tool to advocate and push for change in mental health systems at their schools. The Healthy Minds Team has created this toolkit to give you the data you need to make an impact and improve mental health services on your campus.
Compiled by the University of Texas at Austin, this incredibly robust resource offers links to digital tools to address mood improvement, stress, self-image, mindfulness, addiction, grief, and more — all grouped by age.
The University of California, Berkeley has an entire website dedicated to positive psychology, with tips and resources that can be applied to anyone at any stage of life.
Created by the Jed Foundation, this page offers guidance on how to overcome your feelings of loneliness.
Listen in as students from Miami University share experiences, offer advice for seeking support, and talk about ending the stigma around mental health for students everywhere.
Offered by University of Massachusetts Global, this link-heavy resource has tips and techniques for bolstering your mental health.
University of Florida’s Counseling and Wellness Center offers CWC Talks, a podcast devoted to honest conversations about mental health and wellness, exploring identity, coping with stress, finding joy, and more.
Purdue Global created this resource for college-age students that offers info about common causes of depression, signs, and treatment tips.
Interview With a Mental Health Expert
Dr. Jennifer Ross
Q: How can students maintain a balance between academic workload, social life, and mental well-being?
A: This is the million-dollar question, right? It can be so difficult at times. Often, it comes down to making some hard choices about what is most important. For example, maybe one week a student only has the time and energy to write a B paper instead of an A+ paper, and I give my students permission to do that so they can prioritize rest or time with family and friends. I also think it is important for students not to overload their schedules. It often seems like a race to the finish line, but spreading out their classes over one extra semester may create the space a student needs to breathe, especially if they also want to prioritize the quality of their schoolwork.
Q: What are the different avenues for seeking mental health support on and off campus?
A: Many campuses, especially those with psychology or counseling degree programs, offer on-campus counseling services for students. Going to the student health center is one way to check in with a professional and get some referrals or resources on campus, or students can reach out to their student services office to find out what resources are available. Many online programs are also offering free counseling resources in the form of student assistance programs, where they can connect students with contracted mental health providers. If your campus does not offer mental health support, consider asking community providers if they offer student discounts to help make counseling more affordable. All counselors were once students, and we get it! In my experience, a lot of providers are happy to help in this way when they can.
Q: If a student chooses therapy as a mental health resource, what should they expect during their first counseling session?
A: If someone has never participated in counseling, I warn them that counselors have the most socially inappropriate job on Earth. A counselor’s job is to learn as much about a person as we can in the first few sessions, and that can feel strange or invasive at times. I would encourage students to be open to the process, advocate for what they want, and speak up if they are ever uncomfortable answering something. A first session is a chance for a student also to get to know their counselor, so ask them questions if you have them. Not everyone is a good fit, so it’s perfectly okay to try on a few counselors to find someone that you think can best help you.
Q: How can colleges create a more supportive and inclusive environment for students dealing with mental health challenges?
A: I think it’s imperative for colleges to fund campus-wide initiatives and supports that offer help and connections for students struggling with mental health challenges. It’s so helpful to know that you are not alone when you are struggling, so creating consistent messaging within the student, staff, and faculty cultures that supports asking for and offering help is really crucial. Campaigns that help to destigmatize and challenge biases about mental health are also very helpful. Right now, at the University of Nevada, Reno, there are chalk messages drawn along some of the sidewalks with supportive and encouraging messages. This is an example of an easy, student-led effort to reach out and offer connection.
Q: What role does peer support play in addressing mental health concerns among college students?
A: A huge role! Our peer groups tend to be our first and main lifeline when we need help, and developmentally, many college students are away from friends and family for the first time in their lives. Peer support programs offer connections with folks who might be more relatable to a student, so the sharing of resources and support can be more influential coming from a peer than it might be from other sources.
Q: Are there specific signs or behaviors that might indicate a student is struggling with their mental health?
A: Absolutely. As an instructor, the first thing I notice is a decrease in attendance and the quality of the work a student turns in. As a friend or loved one, you might notice that the student is isolating more or seems less interested in doing things that used to be important or enjoyable to them, or maybe they aren’t taking care of themselves or their responsibilities and relationships the way they usually do. You might notice subtle changes in their personality that cause you to wonder what’s going on with them. If that’s the case, ask them.
Q: How can friends, family, and faculty support a student experiencing mental health issues?
A: As silly as it might sound, the first thing is to believe them when they say they are struggling. Being open, curious, and taking the time to understand what your student may be going through can, it itself, be very healing. You don’t have to have an answer. Often, a listening ear is enough.
Q: What can students do if they suspect a friend or peer is struggling with their mental health but is reluctant to seek help?
A: Ask, listen, and be willing to be with them. As much as many of us might want to take responsibility for finding a solution, that’s often not the answer. So be a friend. Go on a hike together, or have a popcorn and movie night in. Remind them with your presence that they are not alone, and offer encouragement. I have had some students show up for their first counseling session with a friend to wait for them in the waiting room to offer moral support before and after their session. You could be that friend! If a student ever becomes worried about their friend’s safety, make the hard choice and call for help, even if you think they’ll be mad. An angry friend is still an alive friend. The 9-8-8 line is a great place to start.