College. Not all it cracked up to be.

Talking about depression and anxiety has less of a negative stigma attached to it than it did when I was in college. Despite the decrease in stigma, students still struggle with finding the right help and prioritizing getting better amongst their busy schedules. In my work with college students, I have realized how much pressure there is to be prepared not just for today but for the rest of their lives.

I feel like the most vulnerable group of students I work with is the first year students. The expectations they are given are absolutely overwhelming. Not only are many of them transitioning out of their family’s home and learning to live on their own (think cooking their own meals, balancing a job with schoolwork, deciding when to leave the party because there’s no curfew, making a whole new social group) but they are also expected to pick a major or degree. I remember being 18; I really did not know what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” I just knew that I did not want to be a doctor, teacher, or lawyer. There were all of these majors out there but I did not know what half of them meant! What is risk management? What is logistics or supply chain management? Did I want to work in the business or publishing world? What is marketing? I am not sure how I missed the boat on learning about what jobs and degrees are out there, but the point is that at age 18 I had no business deciding what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Heck, I could not even manage my new checking account without over drafting and I could  only cook a baked potato in the microwave. 

Mental health centers on campus are quickly filling up with students who are finding themselves depressed and anxious. Some of them are suicidal, experiencing first time psychosis, and are so overwhelmed with balancing life that they are about to throw in the towel and drop out. While it is great that the stigma of seeking help has lessened, campus counseling centers are finding that they don’t have the resources, particularly long term, to help these students. I have had students tell me that because their problems are not at a crisis level, they are often referred to groups to help manage their anxiety and depression. Luckily, our local university realizes that they cannot meet the needs of all students so they are using outpatient therapy resources, like me!, to refer students.

My work with college ages kids is really enjoyable! They are at such a neat age where they are still so optimistic about life but also seeking some true meaning about what life is about and how to be happy. They are beginning to really think for themselves and have such unique educational experiences along the way.

Here are some quick facts from the National Alliance on Mental Illness regarding college students: One in four have a diagnosable illness, 40% do not seek help, 80% feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, and 50% have become so anxious that they are struggling in school. Another fact that I found, although outdated (from the New York State Office of Mental Health) was that suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among college students. The American Psychological Association also reported in a report from 2014 that they found an increase in sexual assault as well as self injury. These facts are scary. So what are college students’ options? 

  • Let your friends and family know you are struggling. They can offer great support and can be aware of warning signs to ensure you can keep yourself safe during the hardest struggles.
  • Don’t feel ashamed that you may not be able to meet every social obligation or can’t pull off 16 hours of coursework every semester. Slow. Down. 
  • Seek counseling and possible medication management. Sometimes talking about what you are struggling with can do more than you know! Medication may also be a short term solution for some symptoms. 
  • Call a suicide hotline if you are in immediate crisis (locally - 865-539-2409). 
  • Speak with your professors about your struggles - I would hope that they would understand the stress or their class or college in general and offer some study tips or helpful ideas for managing their class. 
  • Perfection is not possible. They say college is about finding yourself and this is true. Through our screw ups and bad choices, those are the places when we can really see who we are and what we are about. 
  • Know that reaching out for help, whatever means that is, is the best thing you can do for yourself. It is not weak or weird, it is jus what we need to do when we are overwhelmed.
  • Create a self-care routine. Most colleges offer free workout facilities, pools, treadmills, and even workout classes. Take advantage of these. PRIORITIZE them and put them on your schedule. You are making time for studying and clubs so make time for you. It’s not just working out that is important but also eating mindfully, adding in some self reflection (meditation) and time for low key time with friends. 
  • Put the beer (and other drinks and drugs) down. I get that drinking is pretty rampant in college and I am not naive in thinking that most college students will not try alcohol but if you decide to drink, do so in moderation. Getting wasted every night puts you at greater risk for sexual assault, mental health issues, legal problems, and definitely not wanting to get up for class the next morning because you are hungover.