Mental health is a huge concern in our modern society, with people from all walks of life struggling to improve personal satisfaction while also keeping stress to a minimum. Mental health in college students is an especially significant source of concern, however, and the impact can be severe: limited academic achievement, an inability to truly embrace or enjoy campus life, and often, negative coping mechanisms that impede progress towards graduation or continue long after the college experience has ended.
In this guide, we strive to answer a common question: why is mental health important for students? We will reveal the implications of stress and anxiety — and how they impact students and mental health. We will also highlight the best college resources available to students experiencing mental health concerns.
What Is Considered Mental Health?
The concept of mental health encompasses our emotional state of mind, including both its psychological and social components. This is what determines how we cope when hit with life's many stressors. It's also what encourages us to make the most of valuable opportunities. When our mental health is in excellent shape, we feel better physically and emotionally — and we're more likely to engage with others.
Emotional and psychological health are related, but not one and the same. The former refers to our moods or feelings, which can change dramatically on a daily basis or even from one moment to the next. Emotionally healthy people are able to process and manage a variety of feelings, including anger, sadness, jealousy, and other challenging emotional responses.
Psychological health relates to the structures of the brain and how they function over time. A variety of factors play into the state of our psychological health, including levels of critical neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. This aspect of mental health largely references its medical manifestations, including diagnosable disorders or illnesses such as depression or anxiety.
While we tend to focus on the personal components of mental health, our social reality plays a crucial role in determining both emotional regulation and long-term psychological concerns. The term "social wellbeing" highlights our ability to interact with other people while building healthy and meaningful relationships. The strength of our social ties can determine not only whether our mental health is optimal in the first place, but also, how (or whether) we're able to recover when emotional or psychological issues take over.
What Mental Health Challenges Do Students Face?
Mental health challenges are present across the entire lifespan, but certain circumstances and stages tend to exacerbate these. College, in particular, is a tough time for many people, with alarming results from a Fortune survey suggesting that three in five college students have been diagnosed with mental health conditions at some point — and many others suffer in silence. The main concerns are anxiety and depression, but trauma, eating disorders, and substance abuse are also common. No two college experiences look exactly alike, but the following concerns often play into students' mental health issues:
College coursework can be incredibly rigorous — and while these challenges can produce impressive academic breakthroughs, they also place a great deal of pressure on today's hardworking students. Perfectionism runs rampant on college campuses, and, often, students admit that they are too hard on themselves. All this pressure can lead to anxiety which, paradoxically, can prevent students from achieving the learning outcomes they desire.
New Social Transitions
Every major transition has the potential to produce mental health challenges, but these are especially pronounced when the entire fabric of our community changes. Such is often the case when starting college, as students may no longer enjoy easy access to the support networks that previously helped them navigate life's greatest challenges. This can be a time of significant growth, but those already inclined towards shyness or social anxiety may find it more difficult to establish necessary connections. They may be left feeling lonely or disconnected when they desperately need support.
From securing grants or scholarships to worrying about their future earning potential, students face a variety of financial pressures. Most are well aware that their success in college could be closely tied to how they fare as professionals, at least economically speaking. What's more, while attending college, their cash flow may be limited, preventing them from spending on the tools or services that could potentially improve their wellbeing.
Depression and Anxiety
Unfortunately, depression and anxiety are a strong possibility with or without college. After all, while these issues are more common among college students and especially in young people, they affect a significant portion of the general population. An estimated 8.3 percent of all U.S. adults have experienced at least one major depressive episode, while nearly one in five U.S. adults deal with anxiety disorders. These issues can be exacerbated by environment and other life circumstances but also often have a genetic component.
How Can a Campus Promote Mental Health Awareness?
Mental health awareness and acceptance are at an all-time high these days, with the stigma around these discussions having largely disappeared in recent years. Still, while many students are accepting of others with mental health concerns, they are often slow to identify signs and symptoms in their own lives. College campuses can help by providing and promoting a variety of mental health services. Top options include:
Mental Health Education
No matter their major or field of study, all students should be encouraged to learn about mental health conditions. These are, of course, touched on in courses such as Basic Psychology or Health and Wellness, but campuses should also provide plenty of other opportunities for students from all degree programs to learn more about mental health and the role it plays in their own lives.
Mental Health Seminars and Awareness
Not all students will enroll in classes that delve into topics related to mental health or wellness — but seminars and workshops can bridge the gap. These explore a variety of relevant concerns and may also provide actionable insights that students can implement on a day-to-day basis.
Resources Offered on Campus
College students should enjoy access to a wealth of mental health resources. In addition to classes and seminars, colleges will ideally provide robust counseling services and support groups. Additionally, students can benefit from activities that help them foster stronger friendships or simply invest in their own self-care. Examples include yoga classes, prayer or ministry groups, and mentoring programs.
How to Balance Academic Demands and Self-Care
As you plan for an exciting college journey, be mindful that mental health difficulties are likely to arise at some point. If you plan for these challenges, however, you will know when stress is starting to take over — and you can adapt your approach to studying (and school-life balance) accordingly. Follow these suggestions to ensure that you remain as committed to self-care as you are to academic success.
Set Time Aside for Studies
Time management might not seem particularly fun or exciting, but it is critical to maintaining optimal mental health in college and beyond. Cycles of procrastination and cramming are inherently stressful, as are the poor grades they produce. Prevent this by carefully scheduling engaging and productive study sessions — including both self-study and groups of like-minded students. As you enroll for courses and sign up for activities, be sure that you can juggle it all while also finding time for yourself.
Make Time for Fun
Scheduled studying is important, but it's also important to take a break and, as the always relevant cliche reminds us, sharpen the saw. This will look a bit different from one student to the next, but anything that allows you to relax and forget your worries — even for an hour or two — should help. Intramural sports are popular for this reason, as they deliver the joy of physical activity in a low-stress, minimally competitive atmosphere. Exploring the community around your campus can also be exciting, as can simple lunch dates or other social interactions that are purposefully not centered around academics.
Find Stress Relief Activities
Have you noticed that certain activities tend to dissipate your stress? These pursuits should feel calming or should take your mind off your academic or personal struggles. Journaling, sketching, or even coloring can be helpful. Yoga and meditation are also powerful practices. Exercise is also a must; while it might be tough to get moving in the moment, you'll be amazed by how quickly your stress dissipates once you increase your activity level.
Use Daily Self-Care Routines to Prevent Burnout
If you are prone to burnout, the strategies outlined above will only take you so far. You may be in desperate need of self-care. Aim for practices that boost both emotional and physical wellness but can realistically be carried out on a daily basis. Many students find the greatest success in implementing strong sleep hygiene, well-rounded diets, and daily interaction with friends or family members. Rituals such as prayer, deep breathing, or even listening to music can also prove deeply impactful if maintained over time.
Managing Stress and Anxiety During Exam Periods
Even students who easily manage their stress for the first few weeks or months of the term may struggle to keep it in check as exams approach. This is when your tendency to procrastinate can make life a lot more difficult — and when a test is looming and you feel ill-prepared, no amount of self-care will help. A proactive approach, however, can help you maintain reasonable stress levels throughout the duration of each term, rather than suffering a spike in anxiety late in the semester.
Set Your Goals
Goal-setting can ease your stress, but only if those goals are clearly stated and realistic. When in doubt, aim to set SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. If you define these early on and create a blueprint for reaching them, you may find that they keep you motivated and focused throughout the entire semester. What's more, this strategy will prevent you from setting out-of-reach goals that will only serve to stress you out.
Take It One Step at a Time
As you divide a broad goal into manageable chunks, make every effort to focus on the task at hand, rather than worrying about the big picture. As you complete each task (no matter how small), you will feel a burst of confidence and a sense of satisfaction.
Take a Walk/Break
Don't underestimate the power of a simple stroll to put your mind at ease. When you struggle to get your stress under control, set aside a few minutes to walk around your campus or otherwise take a break from your usual surroundings. This is a great chance to visit local parks, as fresh air can be just as impactful as physical activity. Return to your studies once your break is complete, but remember: you can always take another break later on.
Revert to Daily Self-Care Routine
The power of routine can prove incredibly helpful when your emotions are difficult to manage. Early in the semester, develop a simple series of steps to help you clear your mind. For example, this might begin with a five-minute meditation session, followed by a short walk, a chat on the phone with a loved one, or simply watching a favorite TV show. You don't need to carry out these steps perfectly, but feel free to return to them when the going gets tough.
Finding Professional Help When Needed
Even if you implement the strategies highlighted above, you may eventually require outside assistance. Don't be ashamed or embarrassed to seek professional help: this does not make you any less valuable of a person or student. Many of the most talented and successful students (and professionals) require counseling services from time to time. This may be worth pursuing even if you aren't currently dealing with diagnosable conditions such as depression.
Know Your Campus Resources
As you get familiar with your campus, take some time to determine which mental health resources are available and how you can make the most of these. As we've mentioned, many colleges offer robust counseling services, including individual and group sessions. Resources such as mentoring and tutoring are also worth looking into, as these can ease your academic stress. Keep in touch with your academic advisor or student success coordinator — and don't hesitate to reach out if you're struggling.
Support and success for students is what matters on the Cumberlands Campus. Get the help you need with our resources!