College has long been portrayed as an important experience in life and a rite of passage into adulthood. Many movies and books paint the college years as a time with adventure, comraderies, hard work, and budding new relationships. Often, the stress and strain of college is portrayed in a lighthearted way, and many students know they must be prepared for deadlines, life on a tight budget, and other mishaps, but there are many cases of more serious concerns that go unaddressed.

The adolescent brain makes a big leap in development before the age of 25. Sometimes, these developments bring on mental illnesses that were previously undiagnosed1, 2. In some situations, the stress of leaving home may trigger conditions such as depression, anxiety, or even substance use disorders. It is important to be aware of potential mental health concerns during the college years, as awareness and early treatment can help make adult life infinitely more rewarding.

Signs and Symptoms of Mental Health Concerns

Because mental illness varies in scope and type, it can be difficult to detect mental illness in some individuals. Unfortunately, many college students go to great lengths to hide their own concerns from friends and loved ones. Simply understanding more about the causes and treatments of mental illness may help many individuals eliminate fear and seek treatment faster.

Those individuals who struggle with mental illness may still find it difficult to self-identify a mental health issue. For instance, conditions such as depression, ADHD, eating disorders, substance use disorders, or anxiety may start small and grow over time. It can become difficult to determine when, exactly, a problem began. Sometimes, issues begin so slowly that the individual who finds himself struggling may not even be fully aware of the extent of the problem.

Sometimes, issues begin so slowly that the individual who finds himself struggling may not even be fully aware of the extent of the problem.

More serious conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often begin in the late teen years or the early twenties. Conditions such as these may cause great feelings of alarm because they may seem to come on suddenly and cause a great deal of distress for both the student and his or her loved ones. It is important to remember that almost all mental health conditions are treatable.

Proper awareness and treatment of symptoms can save lives, stress, and college degrees. Take the following symptoms into consideration, and know that this list contains only some of the examples of a potential issue 3,4:

  • Changes in sleeping habits, such as inability to sleep or stay asleep, or oversleeping
  • Overeating or undereating to the point of impacting physical health
  • Changes in relationships or ability to maintain friendships
  • Illegal use, misuse, or over-use of alcohol, marijuana, drugs, or other substances
  • Changes in ability to function at school or work
  • Feelings of anger, hopelessness, or severe anxiety
  • Paranoia, or seeing or hearing things that other people cannot see or hear
  • Memories or mental images of past trauma that feel overwhelming

If any of these conditions are present, it is important to seek a medical and mental health evaluation immediately. In some cases, symptoms of mental illness may be caused by undiagnosed physical health conditions. Therefore, it is very important to rule out and understand all potential causes as soon as possible.

Mental illness is a very common problem, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. Many mental illnesses are highly treatable, and college students may be surprised to find how many of their peers struggle with similar issues. In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness 5,6 reports that:

  • One fourth of all college students have a diagnosable mental health condition
  • As much as 40% never seek help for their conditions
  • Half of college students have experienced severe (and treatable) anxiety that impairs schoolwork
  • Eighty percent of college students feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of school and life
  • Only seven percent of parents reported concerns about their child’s mental health to others

What to Do About Mental Health Concerns

First and foremost, it is important not to ignore any mental health concern. If you feel concerned about your own wellness, help is available. Our culture all too often encourages people to “just get over it” or deal with things alone, but as we understand more about neuroscience and the social needs of humans, this thinking is changing rapidly. Human beings were not designed to live alone and handle all problems without help. It is a wise and brave choice to seek the advice of a specially trained professional, who has spent years working with mental health.

Our culture all too often encourages people to “just get over it” or deal with things alone, but as we understand more about neuroscience and the social needs of humans, this thinking is changing rapidly.

Many schools offer free mental health counseling, but some schools have limited services, or there is a long waiting period to begin. Fortunately, most schools also offer referral services or at least help students find treatment that is affordable or covered by health insurance. We also offer a confidential helpline to assist anyone in need of support and treatment solutions.

Once a mental health professional is found, it is important to know that not all therapists are equal. Like all other people, therapists and counselors often specialize in a variety of areas, have unique personalities, or work with specific populations. Each student who seeks counseling has the right to change therapists, or ask his or her therapist to try a different approach as needed.

The beauty of mental healthcare is that it offers solutions for a wide variety of individuals in need, and not just a one-size-fits-all mentality. A quality treatment provider knows this, and will work with each individual to help him or her find treatment that works, even if that means offering a helpful referral to a therapist or doctor who is a better fit.

If you or someone you care about is in danger of suicide, self-injury, harming others, or engaging in highly risky behavior, it may be a good idea to call 911 and seek immediate support. There is no shame in asking for help, and it just may save a life.

Substance Use in College

Substance use in college is a serious issue. Many students and young adults drink socially. In moderation, some social drinking may be ok. But when drinking becomes a coping mechanism, or if drugs (even prescription drugs) are misused, there may be a problem.

Unfortunately, many people use substances as a way to cope with difficult emotions or stressors. This may lead to a secondary problem, or even multiple problems. For instance, if a student goes out to drink often in order to cope with a stressful schedule and workload, the drinking may become a habit. Increased drinking may lead to embarrassing or dangerous experiences, which may increase anxiety and stress even more, which will ultimately lead to a number of problems that require help.

Substance use disorders are not often a moral failing. Many start while trying to cope with a mental health issue. Alcohol abuse, substance abuse, and addiction are not about treating moral failings. Quality addiction treatment focuses on building coping skills, community, knowledge, and assessing for any co-occurring mental health concerns. Integrated treatment is one way to treat both substance use problems and mental health conditions at once in a supportive, non-judgmental environment.

No matter what, it is important to know that support is available. College is not always an easy time. The ages of 18-25 are a struggle for many. Awareness of mental health and the resources to help treat mental illness is just as important as knowing which classes to attend. Don’t underestimate how much of a large life change college presents. Counseling and proper care of mental health should be available to all students. If you would like immediate or additional support, please call our completely confidential, toll-free helpline now.


Resources

1. Crews, F. T., & Boettiger, C. A. (2009). Impulsivity, Frontal Lobes and Risk for Addiction. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior, 93(3), 237–247. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2730661/
2. Johnson, S. B., Blum, R. W., & Giedd, J. N. (2009). Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy. The Journal of Adolescent Health : Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 45(3), 216–221. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2892678/
3. Henriques, G. The College Student Mental Health Crisis. Psychology Today. Feb 15, 2014. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-knowledge/201402/the-college-student-mental-health-crisis
4. American Psychological Association. The State of Mental Health on College Campuses: A Growing Crisis. http://www.apa.org/about/gr/education/news/2011/college-campuses.aspx 
5. The Top Mental Health Challenges Facing College Students. http://www.bestcolleges.com/resources/top-5-mental-health-problems-facing-college-students/ 
6. National Alliance on Mental Illness. College Survey: 50 Percent of College Students with Mental Health Problems Who Withdraw from School Because of Mental Health Issues Never Access College Mental Health Services. Dec 6, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.nami.org/Press-Media/Press-Releases/2012/College-Survey-50-Percent-of-College-Students-with