Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
Adjusting to college life — whether you’re a freshman or a returning senior — is stressful, as change often is. But stress, surprisingly, can actually benefit your well-being, says family psychologist B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D., who co-authored The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years with Anthony Rostain, M.D., professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “A certain amount of stress and anxiety is good for us and motivates us to prepare for tests, begin and complete assignments, and get on with ‘adulting,'” she says. But there’s another kind that’s unhealthy, and it’s been ravaging the mental well-being of college students across the country in ever-increasing numbers since 2010. She calls it “The sky is falling” anxiety. It feels catastrophic and requires intervention. Signs to look for: “You will likely feel more irritable and have trouble sleeping and concentrating,” explains Hibbs. This type of anxiety, “if it’s chronic, severe and untreated,” says Hibbs, can spiral into depression, which has also skyrocketed since 2010, with 1 in 5 college students reporting thoughts of suicide.
As our reporting on the crisis of understaffed, overtaxed, and underprepared mental facilities across college campuses shows, it may not be possible to get a quick and recurring appointment to manage your mental health needs, but today, less stigma and greater awareness has improved and expanded resources for college students on campus, says Ben Locke, Ph.D., senior director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Penn State and the executive director of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. Here’s how to make the most of them, and other tactics to set up your college years for success.
Be Proactive and Preemptive
At orientation or just before the semester starts, you may be flying high with giddy excitement about the new adventure underway, but that is exactly the right time to get all your mental health resources lined up. Contact your mental health center to find out how to maneuver the system — ask about insurance, making appointments, wait times, and sessions caps. Also, inquire about the many supplemental forms of maintaining your wellness — peer counseling, group therapy, tele-counseling. If you’re coming to campus with a history of mental illness, getting a grasp on all the resources that will be available to you throughout the year is fundamental, Rostain says.
Adopt a Healthy Routine (and Point of View)
Hibbs recommends getting ahead of your mental health issues by developing healthy habits like exercising regularly, practicing breathing techniques to reduce stress (Hibbs recommends the Breathe 2 Relax app), eating nourishing food, and getting sound sleep. While you’re learning to manage your stress and anxiety, it’s important to work toward self-acceptance and feel okay about the fact “that you will make mistakes and that you can recover and learn from them,” Hibbs says.
Get Your School’s First Responder Training
Most schools now have resource guides and trainings to help the entire campus community better spot students in distress, says Barry Schreier, Ph.D., director of University Counseling Center at the University of Iowa. To improve your mental health literacy for your own sake and also so you can be helpful to people around you, ask staff at your college counseling center for literature or classes you can take to get better informed. The University of Pennsylvania’s I CARE, for example, offers a number of useful tip sheets on how to navigate mental health issues. Brown University has a project called B.E.A.R., which stands for “Be present, Engage, Ask, Refer,” and the national non-profit Active Minds has V.A.R. — Validate their feelings. Appreciate their courage. Refer them to skills and support.
Seek Out Peer Support Groups
Sometimes you just need to hear from others who are going through similar struggles. Active Minds, which has 450 chapters at colleges across the United States, was built around the power of peer-to-peer support. “[Joining] Active Minds was a way for me to become more comfortable talking about what I had gone through,” says Zoe Howland, 21, a senior at Ithaca College in New York double majoring in Sociology and Culture and Communication, who has experienced mental health issues including depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder. “It’s also a way to let others know it’s okay to talk about it,” she says. Project LETS, founded by a former Brown student who found the mental health facilities on campus lacking, fosters “peer-led communities of support, education & advocacy for folks with lived experience of mental illness, trauma, disability, and/or neurodivergence,” across 19 colleges.
Try Digital Therapeutic Support
Talkspace, an online therapy company, has a network of more than 2,000 licensed therapists to communicate with via text, audio or video messaging. Recently, Talkspace teamed up with 120 chapters of sorority Sigma Kappa, as well as other Greek life organizations, so check in with your sorority, fraternity or counseling center to see if they have subscriptions for similar accounts. Last year, Mental Health America’s director of peer advocacy, support and services, Kelly Davis, founded the Collegiate Mental Health Innovation Council, a student-led mental health advocacy group, which unveiled a number of tech-centric resources for students seeking support quickly. These include BetterMynd, which contracts with universities to connect students to tele-counselors; Runaway App, which connects students to trained volunteers; and the Buddy Project, a nonprofit linking suicidal teens to supportive peers via Twitter.
Find Your Community
If you’re feeling like you don’t quite fit in on campus, that can exacerbate anxiety or depression. Maybe you’re an LGBTQ person or an international student or the first to go to college in your family, or a minority, and you’re chafing against the dominant culture at your college and struggling to find your footing. Many universities have minority unions and groups, even housing in some instances, that can help connect you with a group of students going through some of the same things that you are. Visit your campus resource center to see what options there are on your campus.
Remember: Nothing Replaces Therapy
Locke, Penn State’s senior director of Counseling and Psychological Services, emphasizes that all of these auxiliary services are essential in providing support, raising awareness, and reducing stigma, but they can’t be a substitute for one-on-one counseling. “So much of what we do in a therapy session is tied to being face to face with the person and observing their nonverbal behaviors to assess crisis and evaluate risk to safety,” he explains. So even if there’s a wait for therapy on campus, make sure you seek out support from a professional.
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