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 The Top 3 Mental Health Challenges Facing College Students


Research conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness on mental health on college campuses shows that:

  • One in four students have a diagnosable illness
  • 40% do not seek help
  • 80% feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities
  • 50% have been so anxious they struggled in school

While there are certainly growing concerns over other mental health issues affecting college students today, this article covers the prevalent issues of depression, stress/anxiety, and suicide. This doesn’t substitute for treatment, but it will help you with resources that lead to a happier and healthier college career.

Please note that in any situation, it may be difficult for you to approach a friend regarding these illnesses. People do not like to be told when they are sick, what they are feeling or what to do. When it comes to several of these conditions, it is important that you, as a friend, are aware of what’s happening, but know that the decision to get professional help is ultimately your friend’s choice. You should be supportive and patient, but adding too much pressure to a friend with any of these diseases could make it worse.


If you find that you’ve developed one of these mental health ailments, try to remember that your friends are looking out for your best interests. They want you to be well, and they are not attacking you. Talking about your problems with someone close to you may seem like a daunting task, but try to let them help you until you are ready to seek the professional help you need to get better.


Depression among college students wears many faces, and, in a survey conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, 36.4% of college students reported they experienced some level of depression in 2014. Depression is the number one reason students drop out of school, and is a gateway issue that, if left untreated, could lead to other symptoms or suicide. Depression is a common but serious illness that leaves you feeling despondent and helpless, completely detached from the world. It interferes with your life, making it diffcult to work, study, sleep and eat.

Depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain and are likely caused by a combination of genetics, biological, psychological and environmental factors. According to the American Psychological Association, there has been a significant increase in the number of students seeking help for serious mental health problems at campus counseling centers since the mid-1990s, with depression at the forefront of the concerns.


Symptoms for depression differ from person to person. It is caused by a chemical imbalance in our brains, so the way one displays depressive signs is not, necessarily, the way symptoms emerge in others. There will be similarities, but how each person reacts and behaves is determined by how they handle change, where they are in their lives and their proclivity to becoming depressed. Symptoms of depression may include, but are not limited to:

  • Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
  • Change in appetite or weight
  • Slowed thinking or speech
  • Loss of interest in activities or social gatherings
  • Fatigue, loss in energy, sleeplessness
  • Feelings of guilt or anger over past failures
  • Trouble concentrating, indecisiveness
  • Anger or frustration for no distinct reason
  • Thoughts of dying, death and suicide

We all face some of these issues from time to time, but that does not automatically mean you or your friends are depressed. However, if you begin to experience these symptoms with some regularity, or several symptoms consecutively, you may want to consult your school’s mental health center. Identifying these issues in others can be tricky, as students often downplay or simply never talk about something deeply bothering them, often due to insecurities, fear of standing out or embarrassment.

Incoming college freshman are often told that college is the best four years of their lives. You have a new independence to do what you want, within legal bounds, and are free to explore who you are and what interests you most. But with that are many factors, like making friends, getting along with roommates or choosing classes for a specific semester, where you may feel you have little to no control.

The stresses of being away from home, managing coursework and finding your path can lead to intense feelings of inadequacy. You may feel helpless, as if you are just going through the motions, especially when you realize you’re not having the collegiate fun everyone insisted you would. These feelings, left unchecked, can lead to depression. With that in mind, it is important to understand how to both recognize the signs of depression and how to keep yourself healthy.

Recognizing the Signs


Recognizing the signs of depression in yourself and others can be tricky. Everyone has off days, or times when they become overwhelmed with life, but most well-adjusted people will bounce back in short order. Those days when you or your friends feel down or less excited about getting out of bed should not be cause for alarm. However, when days become weeks, and simply getting out of bed becomes a struggle, there is real cause to worry.

What Should You Do If You Start To Notice Signs of Depression in Your Friend?

If you begin to notice signs and symptoms of depression in a friend, there are several steps you can take to get them help. Here are some signs of depression to look for:

  • They are not enjoying activities they once loved
  • They no longer attend classes or social outings
  • They are experiencing extreme anger or sadness over a relationship in their life
  • They react negatively or with apathy to most things
  • They are talking about death or suicide

It almost goes without saying that you won’t have all the answers, but you can be a good listener when they attempt to discuss their issues. Offering words of encouragement shows your friend you are a source of support rather than one of criticism or judgment. Avoid telling your friends to “cheer up” or “snap out of it.” Many who are depressed are aware of their condition, and telling them to get over it, even with good intentions, is not helping. They often don’t have control over how they feel during their downward turns.

It is important to seek help from professionals for any level of depression, so if you feel your friend is at risk, encourage them to seek help and offer to accompany them, be it to a student health center or a doctor’s appointment. While talking through their issues with you may be helpful, it is not a substitute for treatment; depression can worsen or lead to a number of other mental illnesses if left untreated.

How Do You Know if You’re Depressed?

It’s important to understand your own susceptibility to depression. Knowing how you handle stress, feelings of isolation, homesickness and heartbreak may help you realize when you’re becoming depressed. For many who are already depressed, however, it’s dif cult to look inward. Depression can be a cycle of dark thoughts and feeling worthless, and soul searching or self-awareness may not always be possible, but it is important that you try.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Have you experienced extreme sadness or hopelessness?
  • Does your family have a history of depression?
  • Have you turned to heavy drinking or drug use to relieve feelings of hopelessness?
  • Have you been experiencing thoughts of death or suicide?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you may want to contact your primary healthcare provider or your student health center for a mental health assessment. If you feel comfortable speaking with a friend or relative about your concerns,have someone help you research treatment options and accompany you to your campus health center. A support group could also be beneficial; the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance has a geographical locator for support groups in your area. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America also offers a set of useful support tools.

Depression Resources

Those who suffer from depression often feel as if they are alone and have no one to turn to. That is never the case. The following organizations are dedicated to providing resources for those living with depression:


Anxiety and Depression Association of America: This organization is dedicated to promoting the prevention, treatment and cure of anxiety, depression and related disorders. Its site offers insight into understanding depressive mental illnesses, provides links for those seeking help and identifies mobile apps designed to help people living with depressive illnesses.

National Institute of Mental Health: A division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIMH works to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through clinical research, paving the way for prevention, recovery and a cure. NIMH offers a wealth of information on pinpointing signs and symptoms of mental illnesses, resources for seeking help and opportunities to participate in clinical trials to further research.

ULifeline: This online resource for college students seeking mental health wellness provides a wealth of information, such as tips on helping friends in crisis and ideas on developing good wellness habits.


American College Health Association: The ACHA promotes healthy campus communities and works to serve as the principal leadership organization for advancing the health of college students. There are many resources such as helplines, brochures on different types of depression, and external links for seeking help.

The Jed Foundation: The foundation has a number of online resources to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among college students. For example. Help a Friend in Need is a community guide for social media users to identify warning signs in friends at risk. Through its Half of Us campaign, the foundation promotes mental health awareness nationally via on-air or live events and connects students with health care providers.


In moderation, stress and anxiety are a part of most people’s lives. Simply experiencing these feelings does not mean you have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders occur when anxiety interferes with your daily life, halting your ability to function, and causing an immense amount of stress and fearful feelings. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S.; they affect 40 million adults over the age of 18, yet only one-third seek and receive treatment. The ADAA goes on to say that nearly 75% of those affected by an anxiety disorder will experience their rst episode before the age of 22. Anxiety disorders can include, but are not limited to:

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) – Constant, severe anxiety that interferes with day-to-day activities.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – Unreasonable thoughts, fears and obsessions that lead you to repetitive behaviors or compulsions.

Panic disorder – Characterized by frequent sudden attacks of terror, panic and constant fearfulness.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – A condition that’s triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) – When everyday interactions cause irrational anxiety, fear, self-consciousness and embarrassment.


Symptoms of anxiety disorders can be mistaken for everyday stress or written off as someone worrying too much. Panic attacks may be mistaken as a physical ailment, such as a heart attack or tension headache, depending on how your body responds to the increased levels of certain chemicals. Symptoms manifest differently in each person, so what is true for you won’t be true for a friend. Common symptoms for anxiety disorders may include:

  • Feelings of stress and apprehension Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Fearfulness
  • Sweating and dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Muscle pain and tension
  • Headaches
  • Frequent upset stomach or diarrhea

The causes of anxiety disorders aren’t completely understood, but they could include genetics, naturally occurring brain chemicals, life experiences or stress. If you experience extreme anxiety around exams, it may simply be test anxiety. There are generally affordable treatment options available to students on campus, and the ADAA has a list of low cost treatment plans and resources available to you. With the number of ways to get help, there is no reason you shouldn’t.

Recognizing the Signs

One of the most important things to remember about anxiety disorders is that brief and occasional ashes of anxious feelings or behavior do not automatically indicate a mental illness. If the anxious feelings persist, or if they begin to manifest in obsessive behavior or an overwhelming sense of fear, it is time to seek help for yourself or your friend.

What Should You Do if You Start to Notice Signs of an Anxiety Disorder in a Friend?

College students must deal with a variety of stressors. Such sources of stress don’t necessarily cause anxiety disorders, but they can worsen the symptoms. While anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses affecting the U.S. today, identifying signs in others can be difficult, as symptoms can seem like normal stress or anxiety, depending on your own perceptions of what constitutes stress. It can be hard to separate yourself from your own biases, but it’s important to first recognize how much experiential variance there is for an illness as common as anxiety. Your friend may be suffering from an anxiety disorder if they:

  • Experienced a tragic event and do not develop healthy coping habits
  • Appear to live in constant fear of failure, academically or socially
  • Are uncomfortable and extremely anxious in social atmospheres
  • Have trouble concentrating or seem to have a blank mind
  • Seem plagued with guilt or stress
  • Have visible panic attacks

If you believe someone may have an anxiety disorder, be an active listener when they are feeling stressed or anxious, and help them research next steps. Avoid criticizing or belittling the severity of their anxious symptoms and encourage coping strategies that avoid the issues or cause further anxiety. Encourage your friend to visit your campus health care center and seek help from a professional. If your friend is reluctant to seek treatment, you can consult a mental health care provider for suggestions moving forward.

How Do You Know if You Have an Anxiety Disorder?

While every college student might get anxious and experience stress around exams, if you begin feeling riddled with guilt or experience frequent anxiety or panic attacks, this could be cause for concern. Distinguishing the difference between regular stress and a disorder can be difficult, so it is best to consult your healthcare provider if you feel you might be developing an anxiety disorder. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you experiencing anxious or worrisome thoughts on a daily basis?
  • Are you plagued by fears others perceive as unfounded or irrational?
  • Do you avoid everyday social activities because they cause you anxiety?
  • Do you experience sudden heart-pounding panic attacks?
  • Is your anxiety interfering with your school work, social life and family?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you may want to consult your primary healthcare provider or contact your student health center for a mental health assessment that can help determine if you are experiencing an anxiety disorder. The ADAA has put together a list of coping techniques to help students living with anxiety. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, and if you feel you are suffering, take your mental health seriously and contact a professional today.

Anxiety Resources

The following organizations are excellent resources for students suffering from anxiety disorders. Each organization provides information on the different forms of anxiety and resources that explore approaches to coping.


Anxiety and Depression Association of America: This organization is dedicated to promoting the prevention, treatment and cure of anxiety and depression, and related disorders. This site offers insight into how we might better understand depressive mental illnesses; it also suggests several innovative mobile apps that cater to users with depressive illnesses.

American Psychological Association: The APA is dedicated to advancing the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to bene t society. This site offers a great deal of insight into the differences between anxiety disorders and depression, and has tools to help you nd a Psychologist specializing in anxiety disorder treatment near you.

Anxiety Resource Center: This nonpro t is dedicated to offering assistance to those suffering from anxiety disorders. The website has a lengthy list of education materials, a newsletter, and a blog to help you stay updated on breakthroughs in research and trends.

Social Anxiety Association: Promoting the understanding and treatment of social anxiety disorder, this nonprofit maintains a large body of resources for people suffering from social anxiety. The site provides links to support groups, information on how to nd health professionals, news and updates on the disorder, and extensive information on treatment options. Beyond OCD: This site features suggestions and resources intended to help sufferers cope with and conquer OCD in college. Beyond OCD also offers tools for visitors to nd support groups in their area.


College can be a stressful time. Feelings of guilt, hopelessness and despair can build when students don’t take steps to cope with stressors. Suicide is defined as the act of deliberately taking one’s own life, and it is the second leading cause of death among college students.

Statistics show that 10% of college students has thought about or made a plan to commit suicide. There are over 1,000 suicidal deaths on college campuses in the U.S. every year, as reported by Emory University. It’s important to note that most students who are suicidal suffer from depression or other mental illnesses. Many students experience frustration and doubt, but sometimes those thoughts gain a frightening momentum, bringing students to a place where they seriously consider ending their lives.

Recognizing the Signs

Though it sometimes seems like a desperate act, one that came without warning, there are often clues that tell when someone has reached that level of hopelessness that makes them believe taking their life is the only way out. The signs aren’t always as clear in everyone, and they differ from person to person. Common suicidal warning signs include:

  • Depression, negative change in mood, sense of hopelessness
  • Talk of suicide, wanting to die, or dropping hints about suicidal thoughts
  • Abrupt change in personality and behavior
  • Extreme physical and emotional pain
  • Drop in academic performance
  • Avoiding friends or social activities
  • Sudden calmness after a long period of depression

A majority of college students who take their lives have a diagnosable and treatable mental illness. Causes for suicidal behavior vary drastically but can include:

  • Severe depression
  • Anxiety and devastation from a broken relationship or lost loved one
  • Family mental health history
  • Feelings of failure and hopelessness

What Should You Do if You Start to Notice Suicidal Behavior in Your Friend?

If you are concerned a roommate, friend or peer is suicidal, contact your campus counseling center immediately. Students who are suicidal often communicate their intent to those around them, so be aware of signs of depression and do not take their actions lightly; you could save a life.

Here are signs to watch for in students with suicidal behavior:

  • Talk about killing themselves
  • Threaten to hurt themselves
  • Talk or write about their death
  • Make plans to access means of killing themselves by obtaining a weapon or medications
  • Jump into risky behavior without caution
  • Withdraw from friends, family and school work
  • Depressive or hopeless behavior
  • After a relationship ends, they talk about not wanting to go on
  • Talk about feeling trapped and wanting relief from the pain

If any of the behaviors listed above are present in your friend, it’s important you talk to them about your concerns as soon as possible. They could be in a fragile state, so approach them with patience and help them seek out a mental health professional. If you’re unsure how to approach your friend, you can consult online suicide prevention programs for speci c advice; if you feel the situation is an emergency, it may be best to immediately call 911 or another urgent care service.

How Do You Know if You Are Suicidal?

Suicidal thoughts often stem from a preexisting mental condition. Depression, which makes your outlook on life bleak, can lead to suicidal thoughts. Feeling completely overwhelmed and helpless from anxiety may also lead you down this path. Mental illnesses left untreated can have dire conclusions. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you withdrawing from friends, peers, and activities you used to enjoy?
  • Have you ever thought about killing yourself?
  • Have you ever told someone you thought about killing yourself?
  • Have you experienced feeling of worthlessness or guilt?
  • Have you recently begun to abuse drugs or alcohol?
  • Do you experience extreme anxiety or intense anger?

If you answered yes to any of these questions or are having thoughts about killing yourself, tell a friend or call your mental health center. Suicide is a preventable tragedy, and if you’re feeling alone or hopeless, it’s important you seek help.

Suicide Prevention Resources

There are many resources available to you through your student health center on campus or through the following organizations dedicated to preventing suicide:

Active Minds: This organization is dedicated to educating and changing the conversation about mental health on college campuses. There are over 400 chapters on campuses across the U.S. that work to promote the growing concerns of mental health and teach prevention techniques for students and faculty. Active Minds has a list of resources for students in a crisis, and has a therapist/counseling search tool for locating professionals in your area.

National Alliance on Mental Illness: Dedicated to improving the lives of Americans affected by mental illness, NAMI provides information on suicide prevention, a link to a 24 hour suicide lifeline crisis chat, a text support line and social network groups to join the conversation.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: The AFSP works to end and “prevent suicide through research, education and advocacy.” It has a wealth of information on suicide statistics in America, prevention techniques and a lengthy list of available resources. The foundation also hosts Out of the Darkness Walks on campuses across America to raise funds for youth suicide prevention and to reach out to students to help create a safe environment.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Calling the toll-free number, 1- 800-273-TALK (8255), connects those in need to compassionate people who are there to provide the emotional support some can’t find anywhere else. They will help family and friends of those at risk and ways to help their loved ones. All calls are con dental.

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