College is an exciting time, jammed with new opportunities, friends and adventures. But the college experience can also take a mental and emotional toll – and it’s showing at colleges and universities across the country. Students are more stressed and anxious than ever before.
A 2021 Boston University study found that more than half of the 33,000 surveyed college students experienced anxiety or depression. And 83% of respondents said their mental health hurt their academic performance.
Another disturbing academic trend linked to mental health emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data gathered by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), colleges are seeing more students quit school before finishing their studies, and mental health issues are one of the top reasons why.
Why is the mental health of college students declining?
Students juggle a lot, from coursework and exams to extracurriculars and other demands. For many, it’s the first time away from home, family and friends. Add in the uncertainty and chaos caused by a global pandemic, it’s no surprise college students are experiencing increased rates of mental health issues and academic burnout.
According to a 2022 Healthy Minds Study—a national eight-year analysis of the mental state of students at nearly 400 colleges—more than 60% of college students met the criteria for at least one mental health disorder between 2020 and 2021.
What are the most common mental health challenge faced by college students?
Several mental health problems are prevalent among college students today. The most common include:
- Anxiety. Excessive worries that don’t go away can lead to stress, insomnia, fatigue, difficulty concentrating and irritability.
- Depression. Considered the most common mental health disorder, depression is characterized by persistent sadness and lack of interest or pleasure.
- Substance misuse. Many students turn to alcohol and other substances to reduce the stress of college life, which can cause symptoms of depression or anxiety or worsen an existing mental health issue.
- Eating disorders. Anorexia, bulimia and binge eating are common on college campuses, especially among girls.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is caused by a range of events, including childhood trauma, bullying, natural disasters and sexual assault.
- Suicide or suicidal thoughts.
What are the causes of mental health issues among college students?
There are a lot of factors that can contribute to mental health issues. For college students, some of the most common reasons are:
- Adjusting to newfound freedom
- Relationship breakups or problems
- Inability to manage time, stress and responsibilities.
- Pressures to succeed
- Social isolation
- Sexual identity adjustment difficulties
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits
- Financial stress
How does mental health affect college athletes?
It’s not unusual for college students to feel overwhelmed. But studies show that depression, anxiety and other mental health issues are even more prevalent in student athletes. A 2021 study conducted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association found that 30 percent of surveyed athletes felt extremely overwhelmed, and nearly 25 percent felt mentally exhausted.
These teens and young adults are dealing with schoolwork, demanding training and game schedules, and the weighty hopes and expectations of their peers, campus and communities. Many experience feelings of isolation that come with being hyper focused on their sport, being away from home and travelling for competition. Others need to adapt to being in the spotlight and deal with (sometimes harsh) public discussion of their athletic performance.
How does social media affect a college student’s mental health?
It’s not surprising that the pandemic and remote learning pushed college students to rely even more heavily on social media. Before COVID-19, teens and young adults in the U.S. spent an hour or two on social each day. Today, it’s around three or four hours. That increased screen time has been a mixed blessing.
According to recent research, social media can worsen feelings of low self-esteem, isolation and stress, and lead to depression, anxiety, substance use and suicidal thoughts. The top reasons why include:
- Feelings of envy. Social media paints a pretty picture of what others have and what’s they’re doing. Seeing those images and comments can bring on shame and envy for students who are already feeling isolated or less-than.
- Fear of missing out (FOMO). This new phenomenon has been associated with excessive use of social media. When others are seemingly leading more interesting lives, the feeling of being left out can sometimes cause overwhelming anxiety and stress.
- Bad news overload. Social media is the main source of information for today’s college students. Constant doom-scrolling through news about the pandemic, political strife, social injustice, school shootings, natural disasters and more can lead to negative emotional responses.
On the other hand, texting, Insta, TikTok, Snapchat and other apps also help students connect, find community and vent their feelings. College students also use social to learn more about their mental health and recognize the symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other behavioral health issues.
Still, health professionals caution about the role social media plays in college students' mental health and stress the importance of real-life support.
It’s important to remember that social media can’t replace professional care and services, especially when diagnosing or managing a serious mental health condition. It’s also important to work with a mental health professional or your primary care provider to ensure you get an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment.
What are the symptoms of college burnout?
Stress in college is normal. But there are signs that may indicate your stress levels have reached levels that point to burnout. The most common signs of college burnout include:
- Increased irritability
- Lack of motivation and enthusiasm
- Poor academic performance
- Poor health, including lowered immunity, frequent illnesses, headaches or muscle pain
What can college students do to improve mental health?
There are some ways to ease the stress and strain of college and bolster mental health and well-being:
- Learn how to manage your time. From multiple syllabi to social time to other academic activities, there’s a lot of keep track of. Tap into to-do lists, calendars and apps to help organize what you need to do and when you need to do it.
- Make sleep a priority. Getting 7-9 hours of shut-eye may not seem realistic, but good sleep is the best way to ward off stress and keep your brain and body in tune. These strategies can help keep sleep on track.
- Skip the all-nighters
- Limit caffeine use close to bedtime
- Create a consistent sleep schedule
- Stop using your cell phone and other electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime
- Exercise regularly. Like getting enough sleep, physical activity provides a big boost to your mental health. That doesn’t mean you need to train for a marathon or become a powerlifter. Walk more, visit your campus fitness center a couple of times a week or take a study break to refine your frisbee or spikeball skills with friends.
- Eat a healthy diet. A nutrition-poor diet can lead of multiple issues, including mental and physical stress. Opt for a diet rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains and protein.
- Stay connected. When you’re overwhelmed, anxious or stressed, it’s easy to shut yourself off from others. But isolation can lead to loneliness and depression. Find ways to connect with others outside the classroom: join a club, attend campus events, schedule a weekly call with friends or family, or take part in off-campus activities.
- Set reasonable goals. Organic chemistry and advanced calculus in the same quarter? Taking on too much is a common mistake for many college students. Pick a schedule that allows ample time to study and relax.
- Ask for help. Most colleges offer confidential mental health resources and services free of charge. Reach out to friends, advisors, coaches or student services.
At Indigo Health, help is as close as your phone, computer or tablet
If you or a loved one are struggling emotionally, you don’t have to wait for care. Indigo Health Online Care offers screenings for anxiety and depression for adults 18 and older. Simply complete a quick questionnaire and get connected with a trusted Indigo clinician via video to talk about a care plan and treatment options. If necessary, your provider can prescribe medication or refills.
Indigo video visits are offered every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at indigohealth.com.
Need immediate help?
If you or someone you know is in severe distress or has suicidal thoughts or behaviors, seek emergency treatment immediately. The following resources are free, confidential and available 24/7.
- Dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Text HOME to 741-741, theCrisis Text Line.
- Contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).