How can college students protect their mental health?
As fall approaches, new students will arrive on college campuses toting all kinds of things: luggage and school supplies, mini fridges and sports equipment. But in the midst of the preparation for move-in day, many have not considered what tools they will need to support themselves emotionally.
In other words, what can they do to protect their mental health?
In a 2017 survey of more than 700 parents and guardians, over 40% said they did not discuss the potential for either anxiety or depression when helping their teenagers prepare for college. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one in three high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2019, representing a 40% increase since 2009.
Once they arrive on campus, these problems don't go away. A new study using eight years of data from more than 350,000 students at nearly 400 campuses found that the mental health of college students across the United States has been on the decline. More than 60% of students surveyed during the 2020-2021 academic year met criteria for one or more mental health problems, a nearly 50% increase from 2013.
Experts suggest that parents and teenagers take proactive steps now to preserve mental well-being during the big transition to college.
Connect early with the counseling center
Consider contacting the college's counseling center before you arrive on campus. This is particularly important for those who already have an emotional disorder or other mental health concern.
Check to see how many sessions are allowed per year and if there are counselors on call 24 hours a day. Also, ask if the counseling center provides off-campus referrals, and assemble a short list of potential providers to have in your back pocket ahead of arriving at school. This is a good practice for any student, as it may be necessary to seek outside support if the school's counseling center develops a waiting list. It also helps to familiarize yourself with your insurance plan to see what type of coverage it provides.
Embrace other types of support
There are many resources available to students besides the counseling center. Tutoring, academic and peer advising, education coaching, student activities and career services can all help support a student's emotional well-being.
Connecting with other students is especially important, the experts said.
"College students report that loneliness and isolation and feeling like they don't fit in — those kinds of emotions are very common and challenging in first year of college," said John MacPhee, chief executive of the Jed Foundation.
Spend some time looking at the school's extracurricular activities and clubs, and thinking about how to engage with others while on campus. And consider having a roommate even if you have the option of living alone, MacPhee added — it can broaden your social network and help buffer stressors.
Practice basic wellness
In the summer before college, teenagers should take stock of how they're eating, sleeping and socializing, the experts said, especially given that they may have formed some unhealthy habits during the pandemic. If a student's basic needs are neglected, it becomes more difficult to cultivate a healthier mental state.
Learning how to support yourself and taking steps to become more independent can also make the college transition less jarring. Before arriving on campus, practice managing a budget; advocating for yourself with a teacher, doctor or coach; or spending time outside of your childhood home — perhaps with a relative, or at summer camp.
Senior year can be "a rollicking ride" especially during the age of COVID, said Dave Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit that provides therapy and other services to children and families with mental health and learning disorders. "It's just ups and downs, and disappointment and hopes, and trying to figure out where they're supposed to be."
He advised one teenage client (who had slept an average of five hours a night during his senior year) to begin getting eight hours of sleep each night this summer, and to be aware of how much time he was spending on screens. His client also began eating a healthier diet that included more vegetables, and started working out first thing in the morning because he knows his college classes will start later in the day.
Drinking is "another thing that we'll discuss very openly with teenagers during the summer before college," Anderson said. Many high school students are already drinking alcohol socially with friends, he added, and in college they may feel pressure to binge drink or "pre-game." But teenagers can prepare mentally for this and other types of circumstances — including drug use and sexual situations — by setting boundaries now.
"How can we make sure that this summer you're setting intentional goals related to your limits and what you feel like is safe for you?" he asks college-bound teens. That conversation can sometimes make parents nervous, Anderson added.
"But if we can speak honestly to kids about that, they will be more likely to set those limits when they get to college, because they've practiced."