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Students face a variety of pressure in their daily lives, and not all of it is related to keeping up with classwork, either. If you’re a student who’s struggling with mental health issues, you know how tough it can be to balance school, social events, work, and other obligations. This past year’s events likely haven’t helped much either. The COVID-19 pandemic has added more anxiety and fear about the health and safety of you, your friends, and family members to the mix, making it tough to navigate.
Whether you’re living off campus or in a dorm, you may have had to face at least some of these pressures alone over the last year. Many colleges have adopted at least a partial online format for classes during the pandemic. While online classes can be a great way to learn while socially distant during the pandemic, these types of remote learning atmospheres can also make it difficult to lean on friends, classmates, and professors for support. That added stress can take a real toll on your mental health.
With any luck, that will soon change. COVID-19 vaccines are available for adults in the United States, and with the uptick in vaccine rates, it may not be long before you can return to life in a classroom while learning and interacting with your peers. For some, this will serve as a welcome break from being isolated. For others, it could mean anxiety caused by social situations.
If you’re a student who is struggling and in need of mental health support, this guide will give you insight into how you can take advantage of the assistance available to you.
Mental Health by the Numbers
After a year and a half of restrictions and other changes, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased mental health issues among students. According to a Jed Foundation survey on the emotional readiness for the fall 2020 semester, about 63% of students reported that their mental health was worse during the pandemic than it was prior to life dealing with COVID-19.
According to the study, one of the most common concerns among college students continues to be anxiety, with about 82% of students reporting that they deal with issues related to it. Social isolation and loneliness is also prevalent among college students, according to the study, with 68% of the study participants noting issues with loneliness and social isolation.
The issues don’t end with anxiety and social isolation, either. Depression is another prevalent mental health issue among students, with 63% noting they’d dealt with depression at some point. Another 60% of students indicated they had trouble dealing with stress.
Issues like these aren’t just limited to the pandemic, either. The increased pressure alone that is placed on college students can have effects on mental health, including:
- In general, anxiety produces thoughts and feelings of worry and unease. Some of the symptoms of anxiety include feeling restless, fatigued, having trouble concentrating, and sleep disorders.
- Depression generally causes feelings of emptiness and hopelessness. There are different types such as seasonal depression disorder, which is often experienced in the winter; major depression, where symptoms last longer than two weeks; and persistent depressive disorder, which is a mild but long-term form of depression. Symptoms of depression include feeling sad, a loss of interest in activities or people, feelings of worthlessness, lack of appetite, trouble sleeping, and in some cases, suicidal thoughts..
- Addiction and substance abuse
- About 37% of the students interviewed by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health said they use alcohol or an illegal substance regularly. And, almost 55% of full-time college students stated that they’d been drinking alcohol recently, which is about 10% higher than those in the same age group who were not attending college. Signs of substance abuse are weight fluctuations, unexplained mood swings, and a lack of interest in school work.
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is where a person might struggle to concentrate, is overly active, or may exhibit impulsive behaviors. Between 2% and 8% of college students could have ADHD. Symptoms for it include fidgeting, daydreaming, an inability to pay attention, take unnecessary risks, forgetfulness, and talking too much, according to the CDC.
- Bipolar disorders
- With bipolar disorder, students can exhibit drastic changes in behavior, concentration, mood, and energy. It can affect friendships, schoolwork, or your day-to-day tasks. About 3.2% of college students express behaviors associated with bipolar disorders..
- Sleep disorders
- It is not uncommon for college students to have sleep disorders. In one study, 86% of students surveyed expressed trouble sleeping, thanks in part to the pandemic. Sleep disorders include an inability to fall asleep, having trouble falling back asleep when waking up in the middle of the night, restlessness, fatigue, and an inability to concentrate.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of mental health issues outlined above, it is okay to ask for help.
What You Can Do For Your Mental Health
The first step to taking care of your mental health is recognizing that you might be struggling. That said, admitting that you need help can be difficult for you to do, but doing so is imperative if you want to take advantage of the resources that can help. Plus, admitting your mental health needs attention is a courageous thing to do.
Once you’ve admitted that you need to put a focus on your mental health, it’s much easier to start carving out the steps you need to take to improve things. Some techniques or methods you can use to improve your mental health include:
Meditation is a great method to employ if you need help managing stress. Meditation is useful for treating stress because it can produce a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind, both of which are necessary to help lower stress levels.
During meditation, you’ll focus your attention on one point of reference and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that can overwhelm your mind and increase stress levels. Doing this may result in better emotional well-being.
There are many different types of meditation to choose from, including yoga, guided meditation, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong. If you need help or guidance with meditation, try apps like Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer.
Exercise can be a great way to cut down on stress levels. This works, in part, because exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol. Physical activity also stimulates the production of endorphins, which are the body's natural mood elevators.
And, not only does exercise produce endorphins, but it can also help you to refocus. A quiet hike in nature can help take the focus off of the external things that cause you to worry and refocus it on the task at hand.
Plus, exercise can also give you the confidence to tackle the other challenges that contribute to your stress. Exercise can help you sleep better, lower your blood pressure, and give you more energy, allowing you to dedicate time and energy to knocking out those other concerns in your life.
Positive affirmations are positive messages you can tell yourself to gain self-esteem, reduce stress, and improve your problem-solving abilities. To help you develop these positive statements, which you can use to reflect and repeat daily, you may want to:
- Focus on the present tense when crafting positive statements. This allows you to reflect on the good that is happening in your life right now. It can also help you place a positive spin on an upcoming challenge, like a test.
- Craft an emotional message of accomplishment. This could be something like, “I am confident I’m going to ace this test,” or “I have the ability to remember these terms for class.”
- Use these statements to build a positive mindset. This can be especially helpful when stressful situations arise, as you can more easily tackle them with positivity and confidence.
Setting a sleep schedule
Mental illness can greatly disrupt your sleep patterns. When you’re tired, you often cannot think clearly. Being sleep-deprived can lead to being moody and irritable, and it can make you more susceptible to stress, too.
If you’re struggling with mental health issues, it is vital to set a regular sleeping schedule if you can. That said, in many cases, the time you are able to go to bed can vary based on classwork, your job, and other priorities. If you want to help improve your sleep, some things you can do to help you receive the best sleep every night include:
- Read or meditate before you go to sleep. Doing this allows your mind to rest and your body to become comfortable.
- Refrain from watching TV or using your phone before sleep. The light from your phone could restrict your body’s production of melatonin.
- Set a sleep schedule, accounting for 30 minutes of downtime before bed. Also, you should take into account the naps you take during the day. If you have to nap, try to limit it to about 20 minutes in the early afternoon. That will make it easier for your body to fall asleep at night.
- Use exercise to help you sleep better. That said, you should refrain from doing strenuous exercise right before bed.
- Be careful of what you eat or drink at night. Alcohol might seem like a good idea since it can make you sleepy, but the effect of alcohol can interrupt your sleep, leading to issues with fatigue the next day. The same goes for consuming caffeine, foods with high acidity, or spicy snacks.
Listening to music
Music may not seem like a useful tool for treating mental health, but it actually can be. According to a study conducted by The Jed Foundation, 71% of college students stated they cared for their emotional health by listening to music. Studies by Harvard University also show listening to music can reduce your stress.
Getting professional help
Getting professional help can feel intimidating — or perhaps maybe embarrassing — but the reality is that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Professional counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists are all available to help you when you need it.
And, opting for professional help is a common way to treat mental health issues for many students. There has been a 30% increase in students seeking appointments at counseling centers on campus over the past decade, which means you are in good company if you decide to take this route.
To accommodate this growing need, some colleges now offer telehealth services for mental health issues, which means it’s more convenient than ever to seek professional help. If you opt to go this route, you can speak with a licensed counselor from the comfort of your dorm or apartment when you need to.
If your university does not offer resources during the pandemic, or if there is a long wait for these resources, there are other avenues you can pursue. You may look into options like virtual counseling through resources like Real or Talkspace.
Real is an affordable option that starts from about $28 per month and gives you access to group therapy, wellness tracking, and other mental health-related resources. Talkspace, on the other hand, asks you to complete an assessment and choose your therapist. You will gain round the clock access to the help you need with this resource.
Your state’s social services are another resource that may be worth exploring. You can check to see if your state offers affordable mental health resources. In some cases, therapists provide lower rates to college students, which can make it possible to get the help you need while on a limited budget. In some cases, your school’s psychologist might work with a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication if your treatment plan warrants it.
Overall, gaining a fresh insight with the help of a professional can help you discover other perspectives that you might not have seen before. Plus, working with a professional who understands these types of issues and has tools they can offer you will help you learn healthy coping mechanisms you can use to manage stress and anxiety.
Use Your Experience to Help Others
Taking charge of mental health issues is not always easy, but by dealing with these types of problems, you gain a new perspective, along with useful experience and wisdom that you can use to help others in similar circumstances. By offering insight into the resources you used to get control of your mental health, you can help others navigate the same system. Plus, just sharing your story and experience with others can help them to feel less alone, which is important — especially for those who are experiencing feelings of loneliness or isolation caused by mental health struggles.
And, down the road, your experience with mental health struggles could also open the door to a career in psychology. If you’ve lived with mental health struggles, becoming a psychologist could be a rewarding experience for you. You may want to help others in the ways you were helped, or it may ignite an interest in learning more about the causes and treatments of these types of struggles.
By completing an extensive educational program in psychology — whether that’s a master’s degree in psychology or a doctoral program — you will learn more about mental illnesses and discover ways to treat those who need help. Plus, after you graduate, you’ll have a unique perspective and insight that you can share with your patients as a practitioner.
If a career in mental health interests you, check out the programs available.
Being a college student is both liberating and tough. Students face a variety of pressures every day, and the pandemic has amplified these pressures in many ways. As schools reopen to in-person learning soon, some of those stressors may lessen, or other stressors may surface. Our hope is that this guide provides steps that students can take in an effort to better understand and navigate their mental health.
The good news is that there are many simple coping mechanisms you can employ to manage stress and anxiety, and there is also professional help out there if you need it. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, whether it’s accommodations in class or access to mental health professionals who can offer you the tools you need to overcome your struggles. Advocating for yourself and taking advantage of the resources available to you is one of the healthiest things you can do.
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