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College Students: Coping with Stress and Anxiety on Campus


As students head off to college this fall, along with excitement and anticipation, a certain amount of anxiousness is expected. However, for some students anxiety or other mental health challenges can become troublesome and overwhelming. In a recent study of college students who sought help at campus counseling centers, more than half cited anxiety as a health concern and anxiety was identified as the top concern for nearly 20 percent of the students. Other top concerns expressed include depression, relationship problems, stress, academic performance, family, interpersonal functioning and grief/loss.

The study from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State surveyed more than 100,000 students nationwide at 140 colleges and universities. College counseling centers are responding to increasing demands for services and many students have had previous experience with mental health issues. Among those students seeking help at a counseling center, about 19 percent had attended counseling and nearly 9 percent had taken prescription medication prior to coming to college, and more than a quarter had seriously considered attempting suicide at least once.

While college is an exciting time and an important experience, psychiatrist Amy Poon, M.D., clinical assistant professor with Stanford School of Medicine, reminds students that “most people have a mixed experience in college. So although there are many enjoyable things about college, it is also a time of increased stress due to all the changes and transitions. There is a new college environment, new classes and professors, new friends, and family and old friends may be far away. During this time of new challenges, it is not uncommon for stress to become overwhelming. And if it does, the best thing to do is to reach out for help and to let others know."

The good news is that resources are available to help students with their mental health needs. According to a 2014 survey from the American College Counseling Association, some 11 percent of students sought counseling during the year for individual or group counseling. Most counseling centers offer a range of services – individual counseling, group therapy and educational workshops. Nearly 60 percent of counseling centers at four-year institutions have access to on-campus psychiatrists. Many centers also offer drug and alcohol treatment programs.

Dr. Poon notes that a feeling of isolation can also be common among students, and suggests that "when things become difficult, it’s important to reach out to people. This could include your family, your old friends at home, your new friends, your resident advisers in dorms, counselors and other mental health professionals, your professors, your doctor."

What can concerned parents do to help their college students prepare and cope with the stress of college life and potential mental health issues? Here are a few suggestions for parents of college students from Transition Year, a program supporting emotional health at college.

  • Encourage your child to seek help before problems become debilitating. Have your student find out about campus mental health programs, services and resources.
  • Recognize that stress is a part of life, especially during transition. While a certain level of stress is healthy and can be motivating, too much stress can cause real problems.
  • Discuss stress management approaches such as regular physical activity; finding time alone to listen to music, walk or write in a journal; focusing on planning and managing time; maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough sleep.
  • Have conversations about drug and alcohol use. All colleges and universities have policies regarding behaviors and expectations including policies on alcohol use. Also keep in mind drug and alcohol misuse can be a symptom of mental health conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders. (More tips on college students and alcohol.)
  • If you think your student is struggling, let them know you are concerned, offer support and encourage them to take appropriate action. Be mindful — and remind your student — that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

More information for parents and students on making a successful transition to college life available from the Transition Year initiative, a program of the Jed Foundation and APA Foundation.

Students can get involved with Active Minds, a program working on more than 400 campuses to empower students to change the perception about mental health.




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