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The mental health crisis amongst college students

The mental health crisis amongst college students

The importance of addressing mental health on college campuses has become increasingly pressing in recent years. 

To say that college mental health is in crisis would be an understatement. The college years are supposed to be full of self-discovery, growth, and exploration, but the truth is many students face severe, potentially damaging mental health difficulties. 

The first step in helping college students’ mental health journeys is understanding what factors contribute to their struggles. Then, we can find effective ways to support mental health in college students. This is an urgent call to action — learn more about how to help college students with mental health issues. 

Common mental health issues in college students

While college can be a period of excitement and discovery, it simultaneously presents challenges of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. Studies show that nearly half of all college students faced a psychiatric disorder within the last 12 months, and unfortunately, less than a quarter of them sought treatment. While mental health concerns can run the gamut in types of conditions and severity, some issues are more common in the college student age group. 

Psychiatric conditions

The intense pressures of higher education can sometimes trigger serious psychiatric conditions in certain individuals. Schizophrenia and bipolar diagnoses have increased in recent years. 

Research finds that almost half (47%) of people with schizophrenia and nearly three-quarters (70%) of people living with bipolar disorder will drop out of college. These statistics alone demonstrate the vital need for colleges to offer support and easy-to-access mental health services on or close to campus.

Depression

Depression is a common college mental health concern. It can result from intense pressure, high academic demands, separation from the family unit, not having a familiar support system, or peer pressure, among other things. 

Depression encompasses more than temporary feelings of sadness or being 'down'; it's a pervasive and persistent emotional state. Left untreated, it can quickly become debilitating, causing an overwhelming sense of sadness that may interfere with the ability to function normally, complete tasks, and stay on top of studies. It can impact physical and mental health and lead to additional complications. 

Stress and anxiety

One survey of more than 3,000 people found that 56% of college students experience persistent and chronic stress over long periods. 

Chronic stress has been linked to numerous physical and mental health issues. Some research found that it can result in physical health concerns such as headaches, heart disease, and increased risk of cancer, stroke, or high blood pressure. Mental health issues related to long-term stress can include anxiety, depression, and concentration impairment. 

Fear of sexual assault

Fear of campus sexual assault (CSA) adds another level of stress when it comes to college students’ mental health. By some estimates, up to 25% of females in college might experience CSA. First-year students and women are at the highest risk, especially during what’s known as “The Red Zone” – the beginning of the academic year, typically mid-late-August through November. 

Compounding this issue is the drastic underreporting of campus sexual assaults, with an estimated 90% of such incidents going unreported.

Lack of support and services

A lack of support services in higher education can leave many college students struggling, feeling alone, and unsure of their options during this critical period in their lives. The lack of mental health resource options commonly leads to additional and deeper psychological concerns down the road.

Financial issues

Even for students benefiting from financial aid, grants, scholarships, or loans, the looming financial pressures can adversely affect their mental well-being. Financial obligations from tuition, living expenses, books and technology fees, and student loans can trigger chronic stress and anxiety.

Family issues

Family dynamics can play a significant role in student mental health. Whether a college student is simply homesick or had a broken or stressful home life before college, family issues can have long-term impacts on their mental well-being.

What causes mental health issues in college students?

Several factors can contribute to a decline in mental health in college students.

  • Social pressure: First-year students are often away from home for the first time. They’ve left the comfort and safety of their family and high school support system, and are trying to navigate new social circles and establish and maintain positive relationships. The process can be overwhelming. Peer pressure, loneliness, and suddenly being in an unfamiliar environment can contribute to feelings of isolation that may even lead to depression.
  • Academic stress: College is taxing — emotionally, physically, and financially. The demand to succeed and achieve academic excellence can stress students significantly. Fear of failure or of not meeting expectations can cause intense anxiety. Research suggests there’s a direct correlation between academic stress and poor mental health.
  • Lack of mental health care services: Inadequate or nonexistent access to mental health services can exacerbate conditions over time. Campuses without accessible counseling or therapy resources can leave students feeling stranded and desperate for help they need but cannot find.

“College is a completely new experience that occurs developmentally after formative years. Even if memory-making wasn’t perfect, high school is a time when we uniquely begin to explore comforts, interests, and peer groups. When we leave that behind to seemingly start anew, it can be disorienting and anxiety-provoking to leave everything familiar. It’s common for college students to feel lonely in a new environment.” Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW  

The impact of poor mental health amongst college students

Poor mental health can erode the college experience. Lack of mental health care can affect academic performance and hamper social interactions, with long-term implications that can be difficult to recover from. 

Academic performance and dropout rates

Students who struggle with mental health can have lower GPAs, higher rates of chronic absenteeism, and are at greater risk of dropping out. It’s not surprising that conditions like anxiety and depression can affect a student’s ability to focus, show up to class, and be excited about their academic future, and can even be reasons for low graduation rates. Ensuring students have access to mental health resources is a proactive solution to absenteeism in schools.

Social interactions and personal relationships

Poor mental health can affect more than just academics. It can spill over into personal lives and relationships, too. 

Some students who are struggling with their mental health might find it difficult to form or sustain authentic and positive relationships. Isolation, self-doubt, and fear of social interaction can affect the ability to develop rewarding relationships.

“We cannot underestimate the pressure kids feel beginning college, especially post-COVID. Students are now uniquely poised to feel fear of staying fresh and up to par while not falling behind to any degree. This can present some hesitancy and leave students feeling a bit under pressure to feel accepted by new peers.” - Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW 

Long-term mental health implications

Poor mental health can immediately and adversely affect academic performance and interpersonal relationships, and if left untreated, it can establish a foundation for more enduring and complex issues in the future.

Early intervention is a critical determiner of optimal outcomes and success in treating mental health. Thus, addressing concerns today can be a game-changer in years to come. 

How to support the mental health of college students

Taking action is the best way we can address college students’ mental health needs. To support student mental health, we can offer help in the following simple, easy-to-implement ways. 

  • Establishing safe spaces on campus: Campuses need places where students feel safe enough to express feelings, fear, or anything they’re stressed about without worrying about being judged.
  • Promoting physical activity: There’s a proven link between physical activity and improved mental health. College campuses can promote the benefits of physical activity by creating no-cost or low-cost fitness programs and outdoor activities for students.
  • Providing peer counseling programs that are easily accessible: Peer counseling is a mental health resource that can offer students an outlet to share struggles or problems with someone they feel they can relate to.
  • Educating students about the importance of mental health and common issues to be aware of: Education is key in reducing the stigma attached to mental health. It can also help reinforce the idea that students are not alone in what they’re going through.
  • Incorporating on-site therapy services for students: Therapy for students through an online digital platform like Talkspace makes getting help easier than ever. This type of mental health care can be instrumental in assisting students as they overcome their mental health struggles.

Mental health on college campuses is a pressing issue for today’s students. Colleges must recognize and address the critical need for mental health support, encompassing a range of issues from depression and anxiety to academic pressure and various social or personal challenges. Dedicating mental health days for students and providing them with access to mental health resources is pivotal in ensuring their long-term success.

Talkspace is an online therapy platform that provides accessible, convenient online therapy for students when, where, and how they need it. Talkspace therapists make getting help and treatment easy, which can increase the likelihood that students will actually seek support. 

Learn more about how Talkspace can help college students navigate and overcome mental health struggles — help is out there, and Talkspace wants to ensure every student can get it. 

Sources:

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  2. Lipson, Sarah Ketchen, Sasha Zhou, Sara Abelson, Justin Heinze, Matthew Jirsa, Jasmine Morigney, Akilah Patterson, Meghna Singh, and Daniel Eisenberg. “Trends in College Student Mental Health and Help-Seeking by Race/Ethnicity: Findings from the National Healthy Minds Study, 2013–2021.” Journal of Affective Disorders 306 (2022): 138–47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2022.03.038. Accessed December 5, 2023. 
  3. Blanco, Carlos, Mayumi Okuda, Crystal Wright, Deborah S. Hasin, Bridget F. Grant, Shang-Min Liu, and Mark Olfson. “Mental Health of College Students and Their Non–College-Attending Peers.” Archives of General Psychiatry 65, no. 12 (2008): 1429. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.65.12.1429. Accessed December 5, 2023.
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  5. Liu, Xin-Qiao, Yu-Xin Guo, Wen-Jie Zhang, and Wen-Juan Gao. “Influencing Factors, Prediction and Prevention of Depression in College Students: A Literature Review.” World Journal of Psychiatry 12, no. 7 (2022): 860–73. https://doi.org/10.5498/wjp.v12.i7.860. December 5, 2023.
  6. Flaherty, Colleen. “10 Takeaways on College Student Health and Wellness.” Inside Higher Ed | Higher Education News, Events and Jobs. Accessed December 5, 2023. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/student-success/health-wellness/2023/08/07/10-takeaways-college-student-health-and-wellness.  
  7. “Chronic Stress Can Hurt Your Overall Health: Columbiadoctors - New York.” ColumbiaDoctors, July 27, 2023. https://www.columbiadoctors.org/news/chronic-stress-can-hurt-your-overall-health
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  11. Sharma, Ashish. “Exercise for Mental Health.” The Primary Care Companion For CNS Disorders 8, no. 2 (2006). https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a. Accessed December 5, 2023.  

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