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A College Mental Health Checklist for Students

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College can be one of the most exciting times in a young adult’s life—and one of the most stressful. Being away from home for the first time, without the support of family, is both freeing and frightening. Given these big life changes, along with the anxiety and uncertainty of the last few years, it’s no surprise that the percentage of college students with mental health issues continues to rise.

To head off stress, students need to have positive coping skills that can carry them through the college years and beyond. A college mental health checklist can help students build resilience and healthy habits that enhance their well-being. Mental health tips for college students not only reduce the risk of anxiety and depression, they also support academic and social engagement—making students’ time in college more fun and more fulfilling.


Key Takeaways

  • Three-quarters of students have struggled with depression or anxiety in college, and 20 percent have had suicidal thoughts during college.
  • Some of most troubling college mental health stats over the past several years are those regarding students of color.
  • A college mental health checklist can help students build resilience and healthy habits that enhance their well-being.
  • Therapy, residential care, or outpatient treatment are essential for college students who are struggling with mental health conditions.

We’ve created a mental health checklist with everything college students need to get set up for a healthy and balanced school year.

Stats on Mental Health in College Students 2023

How many college students struggle with mental health? The annual Healthy Minds survey released in 2023 revealed that college students are experiencing the highest rates of mental health issues in the survey’s 15-year history.

Moreover, research shows that students of color are suffering at disproportionate rates. American Indian/Alaskan Native students experienced the lowest levels of flourishing and largest increases in mental health issues between 2013 and 2021. During that same time frame, Arab American students experienced a 22 percent increase in college mental health issues, along with an 18 percent decrease in treatment.

In general, many young adults are unable or unwilling to access care. And even the colleges with the best mental health services are rarely able to handle the demand for counseling due to poor mental health on college campuses.

Know the Facts

Only 10% of college students say they have not struggled with their mental health, according to an Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse survey of 2,000 students.

What Are the Most Common College Mental Health Issues?

Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health issues faced by college students. The Healthy Minds study tracked stats on college students and depression as well as college students and anxiety.

The survey found that, among 96,000 US students across 133 campuses:

  • 44 percent said they had experienced depression
  • 37 percent had experienced anxiety,
  • 15 percent reported seriously considering suicide
  • 28 percent had engaged in self-harm
  • 14 percent reported eating disorders

Moreover, between 2013 and 2021, students experienced a 135 percent increase in depression and a 110 percent increase in anxiety.

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What Are the 5 Most Common Mental Health Challenges Students Face in College?

Why is mental health on college campuses so poor? Students report a range of factors that negatively influence well-being. A recent Fortune survey zeroed in on these top five stressors that impact mental health in college students:

  1. Keeping up with coursework (57 percent)
  2. Pressure to do well in college (47 percent)
  3. Financial worries (46 percent)
  4. Balancing school and work responsibilities (41 percent)
  5. Finding a balance between school and family obligations (27 percent)

How Mental Health Affects Students

Mental health issues, particularly if they are untreated, can affect multiple aspects of a person’s life. Anxiety, depression, and other disorders can negatively impact daily functioning, productivity, creativity, and a person’s ability to concentrate and focus. As a result, having a college mental health issue is associated with poorer grades and with dropping out of school.

In a Sallie Mae survey of 300 students, half of those who did not complete college said they had a hard time prioritizing mental health in college. Moreover, the survey found that mental health was among the top three reasons for failing to complete college. (The other two reasons were financial concerns and a change in motivation, focus, or other life circumstances.)

College students’ mental exhaustion as a result of long hours studying can trigger mental health issues. And the reverse is also true: Mental health issues can cause college students’ mental exhaustion. Hence, 59 percent of students report that emotional or mental difficulties have negatively impacted their academic performance.

An Evidence-Based College Mental Health Checklist

These mental health tips for college students are proven to build resilience and boost well-being. The key is making them a regular part of your daily schedule. Ongoing practice can make a real and noticeable difference in mood and happiness levels. Therefore, a mental health check-in for students might include reviewing this list once every week or two, and incorporating more mental health tips into their routine over time.

1. Find out what services are available at the college counseling center. 

Only about half of students know where get help for mental health on college campuses, according to the Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse survey. Getting that information should be the first item on a college mental health checklist. You’ll want to find out the following:

  • What services are provided?
  • How many times and how often can you attend a session?
  • Is help available via call or text outside of regular business hours?
  • Are there disability support services available for college students with mental health issues?
  • What happens if a student needs to take a leave of absence due to mental health issues?

There must be a significant, immediate investment by post-secondary education leaders to not only prioritize well- being in academic environments, but also increase capacity to connect students to culturally sensitive mental health professionals and resources.

Meghna Singh
Healthy Minds study coauthor

2. Look for ways to foster connection on campus.

Loneliness is one of the biggest factors leading to depression. While it may seem hard to be lonely among hundreds or thousands of other students, being alone in a crowd can make young adults feel even more isolated. Watching others make friendships and start new romantic relationships, while you’re feeling alone and isolated, can be extremely painful.

To prevent loneliness, college students need to be proactive about finding ways to connect. Here are some approaches:

  • Consider joining affinity groups, theater or musical groups, dance troupes, or other clubs focused on special interests you share.
  • For some students, joining a fraternity or sorority might provide connection and community. Explore the pros and cons of Greek life.
  • Set up study sessions with classmates before an exam.
  • For students of color, classes that explore race and ethnicity can provide a forum in which to discuss the mental health effects of structural racism in a safe context.
  • Don’t forget about the resources you have outside of college as well. A weekly check-in with a close friend at home or at another college can help you feel seen and loved. That’s particularly helpful in the early days of college, when everyone is still getting to know each other.

3. Build realistic self-care habits that you can stick to.

Yes, sleep, nutrition, and exercise are essential for mental health. But let’s be real: Between social activities, studying, and early-morning classes, there’s just no way college students are going to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Eating well is another area of self-care that’s incredibly important for mental health but not easy for college students to maintain. Physical activity can be tough to fit in as well.

However, self-care doesn’t have to be all or nothing. A college mental health checklist should be realistic and attainable. For example …

  • Get enough sleep a few nights a week to help balance out those late nights and all-nighters.
  • When you’re in the dining hall, grab some fresh fruit for later.
  • Make time to walk around campus to get to classes and the dining hall, rather than driving or taking a shuttle. That builds in both exercise and time outdoors, which also benefits mental health.

Above all, self-care habits need to be attainable. If you set the bar too high and fail, it’s more likely you’ll give up altogether. Instead, celebrate small achievements and notice if they help you feel better. That good feeling can help incentivize you to keep it up.

4. Set aside a little time to do things you love that aren’t school related.

We feel most like ourselves when we spend time doing the things we love and are good at. And those activities are unfortunately the most likely to go by the wayside if they’re not applicable to a student’s college experience.

Dedicating just a few minutes, a few times a week, to a beloved hobby or creative activity can go a long way toward boosting your mood. Write in a journal, make a collage, play your guitar, read a good book (one that’s not required reading). Reconnect with what makes you feel alive and joyful. There’s a good chance that spark will carry over into your next assignment or social interaction.

5. Harness gratitude and self-compassion.

Humans are wired to respond to and remember negative events. That negativity bias is what kept us alive through generations of exposure to dangers of all kinds. In order to rewire our brains toward positive experiences, we need to practice noticing and acknowledging them. Research shows that when we pay attention to the things that are going well, it becomes easier to see those good things rather than the not-so-good ones. To try this for yourself, create a habit of listing three things you’re grateful for each morning, to start off your day on a positive note.

Self-compassion is another mindful habit that’s proven to benefit mental health in college students and young adults in general. Instead of pushing yourself harder when you’re feeling low, offer yourself the positive feedback and acceptance you would give to a friend. Young adults are often afraid that being “soft” on themselves will lower their productivity and drive to succeed. But research shows the opposite: Self-compassion actually boosts motivation and improvement. Meanwhile, perfectionism is associated with higher levels of stress, depression, and anxiety.

6. Use technology for good.

For some students, tech tools can be extremely helpful in keeping up with a college mental health checklist. Try a wellness or mindfulness app to stay on track with self-care. Organizational tools can ward off the mental exhaustion college students often experience when they have too many balls in the air.

Healthy device use also includes minimizing engagement that doesn’t benefit you. Above all, reduce time spent on social media, particularly the time you spend scrolling through others’ images and posts rather than connecting directly with people you actually know. The apps may seem like a good way to take a break from studying, but social media overuse is both a distraction and a detriment to well-being.

Treatment Options for College Mental Health Disorders

While a college mental health checklist is essential, it may not be sufficient for all students. Even colleges with the best mental health services may not provide enough support for students who are struggling with anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other mood or personality disorders. In these cases, the best course of action is to seek a higher level of care, such as an outpatient or residential program. As awareness around mental health has grown, it has become easier for students to take a leave of absence in order to seek treatment. 

At Newport Institute, our experts provide specialized care for young adults during this pivotal stage of life. During their time with us, young people build healthy coping skills while healing underlying trauma and attachment wounds. Furthermore, our robust academic and life skills programming allow college students to continue building their educational strengths and motivation while in treatment. When they’re ready to return to school, they’re equipped with the tools they need to stay happy and healthy while succeeding in college—and beyond.

Contact us today to find out more about Newport Institute’s nationwide locations and our clinical model of care for young adults.

Frequently Asked Questions About College Mental Heath

  • What is the most common mental health issue that college students deal with?
  • What are the five most common mental health challenges students face in college?
  • What is causing mental health issues in college students?
  • How are college students affected by mental health?
  • Is mental health getting worse for college students?
  • Is a college counseling service for mental health really worth it?
Sources

J Affective Disord. 2022 Jun; 306: 138–147.

Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse Survey 2022

Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2012 Sep; 38(9): 1133–43.

J Personality. 2009 Feb; 77(1): 23–50.

Psychol Bull. 2008 May; 134(3): 383–403.

 

Mental Health / August 6, 2023

Newport Institute

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