Request a demo
Back to Blog

How mental health in college students is changing

December 9, 2021 - 27 min read

mental health issues in college kids_two college students standing outside

Jump to section

What is mental health?

6 common mental health issues in college students

4 causes for mental health issues

4 signs of poor mental health

8 ways to take care of your mental health

3 ways colleges can help

College lends itself to a host of new things: freedom, independence, autonomy, and opportunity. But there’s a new trend rising in college students only exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic: a mental health crisis.

According to a recent study, COVID-19 has taken a hefty toll on college students’ mental health.

  • One in three students reported having a mental health disorder in 2020
  • One in four students is taking psychiatric medications
  • Rates of major depression on campus doubled from 2009 to 2019 from 8% to 18%
  • In 2019, 13% of students reported seriously considering suicide

What’s happening in today’s culture that’s negatively impacting so many college students’ mental health? Amid a mental health crisis in young adults, how can you identify challenges, respond and cope with root causes, and seek help?

It might feel like you've hit your quarter-life crisis. Whether you're a college student feeling uneasy about your own mental health or a family member watching a young person struggle, you're not alone. Here's what you should know about mental health in college students — and how you can help or get help.

What is mental health?

First off, what do we mean by mental health?

Mental health is defined by the American Psychological Association as a state of mind characterized. It's defined by emotional well-being, good behavioral adjustment, relative freedom from anxiety, and disabling symptoms. It's also the capacity to establish constructive relationships and cope with the ordinary demands and stresses of life.

More commonly, mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Just like physical health, mental health exists on a spectrum and can range from poor to healthy.

It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.

6 common mental health issues in college students

Grappling with mental health issues isn’t a new phenomenon with college students. In fact, according to 2018 and 2019 student surveys from the American College Health Association (ACHA), about 60% of respondents felt "overwhelming" anxiety. In fact, 40% experienced depression so severe they had difficulty functioning.

With increased uncertainty and change over the last year, it's not surprising students' mental health has suffered. Many college students will face mental health issues that have a significant impact on their lives or the lives of those around them.

Here are some common mental health issues college students face today.

  1. Anxiety. Anxiety is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor. Anxiety can lead to symptoms, like stress, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, muscle tension, and irritability.
  2. Depression. Depression is the most common mental health disorder, characterized by persistent sadness and a lack of interest or pleasure. 
  3. Eating disorders. Eating disorders are disturbed eating habits, such as bulimia, anorexia, or binge-eating disorder.
  4. Substance abuse disorder. This is an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
  5. Self-harm or self-injury. This means deliberately hurting your body to deal with emotional pain.
  6. Suicide. This is ending your own life.

4 causes for mental health issues in college

Even before the pandemic, students’ emotional and mental health was under stress, likely exacerbated by the conditions of the college experience. Already, college students experience a range of mental health issues: change, disruption, autonomy, loneliness, stress, and anxiety.

But coupled with the onset of the pandemic, students felt compounding mental health issues only grew.

mental health issues college students_young woman at computer with headphones

For parents and loved ones, you may notice a young adult in your life struggling as they experience a number of new issues arising in today’s world. Or maybe your roommate, housemate, or close friend is navigating a set of challenges causing impacts to their mental health.

While there are many reasons why mental health issues arise during college, here are four common themes we’ve observed in students.

First experience of freedom

For so many students, college comes with more freedom than most young people have ever experienced. This independence is exciting but can also be overwhelming.

Depression and low mood can often develop without the structure that a student’s previous home life provided.

Relationships

College is a time of huge change in relationships: letting go of and leaving high school friendships can feel like grief. Building new friendships takes energy and effort; with some people you’ll click instantly but this isn’t always the case.

Many college relationships develop through a process of trial and error. For many, it's about finding out which friendships feel satisfying, nurturing, and fulfilling.

Stress and responsibility

Managing different aspects of the student experience can be hard. For example, students are often managing longer-term deadlines and goals of coursework and academics.

Students are also navigating finances, figuring out meals within a new living environment outside of the family home, and considering future careers. All of these factors potentially put stress and strain on this intense period that is a bridge between childhood and becoming an adult.

Contributing well-being factors

The college environment matters. And within the landscape, there are many choices to make about diet, exercise and activity, and temptations such as alcohol and drugs. All of these environmental factors can lead to stress and are fertile ground for mental health challenges to arise.

Any of these four factors might affect you (or your student if you are a parent). But given the statistics, it’s also important to be aware that even if you are not directly affected, it is likely that a close friend, roommate or housemate will experience negative mental health issues in their college career.

New call-to-action

4 signs of poor mental health

Sometimes, we don’t notice changes in our mental health until it’s reached a point of intervention. The first step is to stop and take notice of mental health issues, which require attentiveness, care, and intention. It's important to take note of the signs, whether it's for yourself, a close friend or loved one, or your child (if you're a parent).

How do you know that you, a friend, child, or loved one might be suffering from poor mental health?

Lack of engagement

Lack of engagement can be a sign of depression: signs such as excessive sleeping, not wanting to go out or do much, or feeling hopeless about the future. For some, this might show up as poor academic performance, unwillingness to participate in college life, or loss of interest.

Worrying too much, no matter how much work you do. Excessive worry, overwork, studying, or over-preparing even when you’re exhausted, out of fear of not doing or being enough. If you find yourself in any negative thought patterns — especially if you feel burnt out — you might be grappling with anxiety.

Increased dependence on substances

If you or a close friend uses excessive drinking to numb emotions, it might be a sign of a struggle with substance use or even substance abuse. You might notice a close friend or roommate leaning too heavily on substances.

If you notice an increased dependency on things like alcohol and drugs, it might be a sign there’s a root mental health issue that needs to be addressed.

A changing relationship with food

Your relationship with food causes you distress or interferes with your daily life and relationships. Pay attention to your eating patterns.

If you avoid socializing when there’s food, binge then purge, or exercise excessively, you may be struggling with an eating disorder. If you’re a parent, you might notice changes in eating patterns with your child, like meal avoidance or overeating at odd hours.

Self-harm

Performing acts of self-injury or self-harm is a sign that your mental health needs some love and attention. Some examples include cutting, picking at skin, or taking risks that could result in injury.

If you have a child, friend, or loved one who is performing acts of self-harm, reiterate your love and support for your loved one. It’s important they know there are resources available to help cope with their mental health issues in ways that won’t cause physical harm.

Suicidal thoughts

You might reach a place where you feel like the world would be better without you, or that you feel that life has lost its purpose. If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, your local emergency services, a counselor or therapist, or friend or family member.

If you have a child, loved one, or friend who mentions thoughts of suicide, seek help immediately and ensure resources are available to them. We know this is scary to experience. By providing mental health resources and services, you're reiterating your love and support and empowering your loved one to get the help they need.

What are the consequences?

College is a time to learn about yourself, gain knowledge in your area of study, make new friends and relationships, and build independence. Doing all this while experiencing poor mental health may cause you to feel overwhelmed and unable to enjoy this time of huge growth in your life.

If your mental health issues interfere with your life, your work, and your education, your worry and stress will likely compound. Fear of failing a class or not being able to sustain the workload means you likely won’t be able to give your best, which creates a vicious cycle.

The health and well-being of a whole person — be it diet, exercise, physical wellness, and more — are so inherently tied to mental health. Oftentimes, if your mental health is suffering, there’s a good chance your physical health is, too.

By letting your mental health issues go unchecked, you could risk your overall health and well-being getting worse. But here’s where tools and resources can come in handy.

mental health issues in college students_young woman on her bed on laptop

8 ways to take care of your mental health 

Whether you're a college student yourself or parent, friend or loved one of a young adult, these mental health tips can help empower mental fitness.

Maintain a routine

As human beings, we like routines. Try to focus on setting a basic schedule for the week that you can follow. If you have live, scheduled classes, use them as the building blocks of your weekly schedule and make it a priority to attend.

If you miss one, try not to allow yourself to see it as a lost cause. Instead, take the time to reflect. Get curious with yourself about why you missed it, learn from that, and recommit to making the next session.

Build strong friendships

In terms of what’s happening in the world of relationships for a college student, there’s a lot going on. Be aware that you might be missing old high school friends and the familiarity and ease of those friendships. As you develop new friendships, allow yourself some time to settle into finding groups of people you enjoy spending time with.

Make sure to take time to reflect on which relationships make you feel good. If a friendship feels out of balance, or like it’s draining your positive energy, it might not be a good fit. Build relationships through clubs, activities, community interest groups, or other extracurricular activities.

If you’re worried about a friend’s mental health, let them know you care and are there to listen and support them.

Focus on all aspects of your health

Midnight snacking, keg parties, and the chance to sleep until noon are all temptations that many college students will face. It's important to be mindful that physical health and mental health go hand-in-hand. Do your best to look after your physical health, which might mean:

  • Diet: See if you can make at least a few healthy choices for meals each week. Fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins will all boost your mood. Sugar sugary snacks may taste great in the moment but leave you craving more. See if you can combine meeting friends for meals or cook healthy meals together with friends or roommates.
  • Exercise: Any movement is good for you. Whether it’s attending a yoga class, joining an intramural team, or opting to walk or bike across campus, exercise almost never has a downside.

    For many people, nature is a tonic to counteract the stress of modern life — even a short walk in fresh air can lift your mood. 
  • Sleep: The negative effects of poor sleep are plentiful, so make it a priority to give yourself a great nighttime routine. Try to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same times, as this helps your body clock settle into a routine.

    One of the characteristics of low mood can be what’s called a boom and bust. You might find yourself in a cycle of high intensity work and activity only to be followed by a hard crash, where you might feel exhausted and fatigued. If you’ve had a late night, allow yourself a little extra rest the next day but try to get back on to a good schedule as soon as you can.
  • Financial health: The pressures of money can be a source of stress and worry for college students. You may worry about judgment from others if you receive financial aid or need to work a job or two.

    Remember that you’re as good as everyone else, and that if you’re working, you’re also building life skills around managing your time and priorities. This is a great time to start to develop and stick to a budget. These are all real-world skills that will pay major dividends once you’re out of the college environment and in the professional world.
  • Reduce risks around sex, substance abuse, and addictive behavior. The freedom to experiment and the availability of temptations are plenty, so put in place some boundaries around how you can stay safe and well.

    Remind yourself of your own boundaries as you continue to build friendships and relationships. You matter, and your overall health is worth looking after.

Try new things or stick to the familiar

A wonderful thing about college is the chance to expand your horizons and develop your identity. For some students, this large variety of activities will feel like an exciting opportunity to try new things.

Take Rebecca, a student I worked with who was an athlete in school but always wanted to be on stage. “Because I played sports in high school, I could never make time for the school theater productions. In college, I decided to join an amateur drama group and have loved it so much.”

If you’re missing the comforts of home, stick to an activity that you already know and love to help build friendships and connections that way. Volunteering is a great way to get involved and give back to the local community. Check out your campus resources for different organizations you can support in your area.

Set small goals 

One of the biggest challenges that can affect mental health is the feeling that your work has gotten on top of you, or that you’re falling behind. For many people who suffer from anxiety, procrastination and perfectionism can be paralyzing.

When you get an assignment, set yourself some small daily goals — even if it’s just 15 minutes a day to study or read about a particular subject. If a deadline is six weeks away, give yourself some time to plan some milestones.

Derrick, a second year student I worked with, decided early on that “done is better than perfect. I knew that every time I completed an assignment, it was a way to not burden myself with the extra stress of going right to the wire.”

mental health college students_man in graduation cap and gown

Reach out for help and mental health resources

Know that you are never alone in your challenges and that there are always people who are willing to listen and help. Lean on your college or university’s mental health resources. It's always a good idea to bookmark any national resources, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, just in case.

Many colleges and universities have counseling centers or mental health services. Consider visiting a therapist or counselor who offers services like cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) or talk therapy. You can also work with a coach to help you work towards your goal in a supportive, non-judgmental space.

Focus on the positive and keep things in perspective

It may seem sometimes that everyone else has things all figured out and under control, but remember that everyone has challenges. Nobody has a perfect life. If browsing other people’s social media feeds makes you feel down, limit your use of it.

It's important to remember that you can’t compare your internal feelings to the outward impression people give on social channels. You’re not alone in feeling the pressure to succeed in a challenging environment.

Keep learning about yourself

Allow yourself to see everything as a learning experience, rather than something that is simply pass/fail. If you struggle to get to class one week, ask yourself with compassion: what made it hard? Maybe you hadn’t managed to do the reading and didn’t want to risk getting caught out as being behind? Maybe you’d stayed out later the night before and found it hard to get out of bed?

Treat yourself with empathy. You can reset your goals, speak to the professor, teaching team, or other students, friends, or classmates if you need help.

3 ways universities and colleges can help

For universities and colleges, the mental health of your students is so important — and the academic landscape is complex. If you’re in academia or the higher education field, there are many ways you can prioritize mental health issues in college students.

Funding

Fund and resource specialized groups that can support the promotion of positive mental health. Early prevention and intervention is worth building into the system of support you offer. Offer counseling services and look for ways to increase the funding of these services.

We know these mental health challenges will not likely go away anytime soon, so it's a good investment in the well-being of your students. This strategy will likely continue to evolve and grow over time but setting a foundation is important.

Invite guest speakers or open discussions to help normalize mental health challenges. Open conversation will continue to break down the stigma and encourage discussions and awareness.

Provide adequate resources

Set up and share mental health support resources that all students are aware of and know about. Fortunately, the increased visibility of mental health problems means there is less of a stigma with students asking for help.

Consider how you might leverage more experienced students in the process, like students in advisor roles (resident advisor, undergraduate advisors). Make sure they’re trained to spot the signs that someone’s mental health might be under strain. Ensure students have access to mental health professionals, health centers, and counseling services. 

For faculty members and educators looking to learn more, Dr. Brené Brown and Dr. Laurie Santos discuss their experiences with college students and mental health in this podcast . 

Keep loved ones close

Involve family and loved ones where appropriate. Although there might be confidentiality issues at play, look for ways to encourage students to reach out and share with their families if they are in distress.

Many parents and guardians might be worried at the distance between them and their children, and would want to help if they knew their child was suffering or having a mental health crisis.

While it should always be led by the student, and students may need support in maintaining boundaries with family members, see if you can develop an approach that allows the student to enlist the help of family support if it is appropriate. This will help the family develop some awareness and insight into the situation that may help over time.

It’s OK to not be OK: seek help

While mental health issues are common in college students, there are resources, organizations, and people who are here to help.

Grades, finances, relationships, and career prospects all come second to your overall mental health. Sometimes the weight you’re carrying can feel big on its own, but in sharing and finding support, the load can immediately feel lighter. If you see a friend or loved one struggling or notice signs of mental health issues, speak up.

We’re all on this journey together and for many, college is just the start of putting a good mental health practice in place.

For suicide prevention hotlines in your country, visit this page. If you're in need or urgent support, contact your local emergency services.

 

New call-to-action
Published December 9, 2021

Meg Lyons, PCC

BetterUp Fellow Coach, PCC

Read Next

Well-being
10 min read | January 28, 2021

Physical well-being and health: What it is and how to achieve it

Physical well-being is connected to everything from our emotions to our careers and finances. Learn what it is, why it's important, and how to improve it. Read More
Well-being
19 min read | February 23, 2021

Understanding the difference between health and well-being

In this post, we’ll discuss the meaning of both health and well-being, how they intersect, and how you can create more of each in your life. Read More
Well-being
11 min read | September 24, 2021

How EMDR therapy holds the promise to make trauma go away

Dealing with trauma? EMDR is a relatively new therapy that may help — but what is EMDR therapy, how does it work, and can it really make trauma disappear? Read More
Well-being
20 min read | December 14, 2021

Coping with disenfranchised grief: 5 steps to start healing

When no one understands what you’re experiencing, disenfranchised grief can feel impossible to cope with. Learn how you can start to heal from a grief unrecognized. Read More
Well-being
23 min read | January 5, 2022

Understanding the mental health journey — and how to read the map

Find out why understanding your own mental health journey can help you live a happier life — and learn four ways to get started on your journey. Read More
Well-being
14 min read | September 20, 2022

How to talk to your boss about mental health, let’s sit down and chat

Unsure about how to talk to your boss about mental health? Learn the do’s and don’ts for talking to your boss, and how to speak your mind about your well-being. Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.