College can literally be the most exciting four years of your life. New people, new surroundings, and new perspectives on life can be amazingly positive. For many college students, though, those four years can be challenging and trying at times. When we shake up our routines and change our daily structure, we open ourselves up to the possibility of our mental health being slightly more vulnerable. For the most part, this is really normal.
As a psychotherapist, I see a handful of issues that affect the college population. Students come to me to address a litany of topics, but I wanted to provide a run-down on the most common.
We’ve all the seen the commercials for antidepressants. The actors in those commercials are so sad that they can’t even get out of bed in the morning. For some of us, that is a fairly accurate depiction of depression. For others of us, it’s a shockingly inaccurate portrayal. Yes, depression can look like sadness. But it can also feel like emptiness and fatigue.
Plenty of college students feel symptoms of depression and continue about their daily routine – they get out of bed each morning, attending classes, and even call home regularly. How rested do you feel when you get out of bed? How attentive are you during these classes? How invested are you in calling home? Fatigue, inattentiveness, detachment, and even aggression can be signs of depression.
You need to talk to someone. Anyone, at first. As a therapist, I’d obviously urge you to run right over to Counseling Services, but not everyone starts there. Find someone and talk to them.
Symptoms of increased anxiety during your college years are incredibly normal. All of a sudden, the world considers you an adult and you’re expected to act accordingly. Do your homework, get a job, and be social – while that doesn’t seem like a lot, for some people it’s overwhelming. What’s anxiety feel like? It can be as simple as feeling antsy, having an upset stomach, and feeling tingling in your fingertips. For some people, anxiety can be more crippling – it can render us almost paralyzed and unable to accomplish much.
Many people chose to leave their anxiety untreated because people don’t want to rely on medications. Prescribed medications can be really helpful for some people if your anxiety is intense enough. There are a lot of non-medicinal approaches, though, that can be really helpful (ie, breathing exercises, yoga, talk therapy).
In high school, I did really well. I was a beast at high school. My GPA was a 4.0, I was Student Body President and cheerleading Captain. When I started college, I assumed I’d still be at the top of my class – until I realized that I was now going to school with 900 other kids who had once been at the top of their high school classes. That’ll do a number on your self-esteem, especially if you don’t find a new way to identify yourself. You may feel less confident and more confused about your identity.
It’s important to see ourselves in many different ways. Sure, I was always a good student but I was more than that. I had to see myself as the whole person that I am. Focus on what you’re good at. Ask your friends and family what they like about you. I doubt they’ll mention your grades.
Anytime we use a substance for anything other than what’s intended, that’s abuse. If something isn’t prescribed to you or you take more of a medication than prescribed, that’s abuse. When it comes to alcohol, 3-4 drinks for women and 4-5 drinks for men is considered abusive use. Most college students meet criteria for substance abuse at some point in their four years of higher education. For many of these students, the abuse stays at college when they graduate. For others, it escalates into riskier behavior or addiction.
If you think you’re drinking too much or you’re using something that isn’t prescribed to you, talk to a counselor or a doctor. The sooner you address the issue, the easier it’ll be to treat.
While college can be a time of new and positive experiences, it can, unfortunately, also be a time of negative and impacting experiences. With new environments, new people, and increased substance use, the door is also opened to traumatic experiences. College students are a population with a increased risk of violence, sexual assault, drug overdoses, and other risky behaviors.
For many of us that witness or are the victims of trauma, we just want to push it down and forget about it. Makes sense. Why would I want to talk about and potentially relive a terrible experience? Your body doesn’t operate that way, though.
While you can try to consciously push something out of your mind, your body will only let you do this for so long before you start noticing residual effects. Maybe you’re not sleeping, or hyper-vigilant to loud noises, or maybe you develop panic attacks. Address the trauma or it’ll pop back up. Find a therapist that is trained to address trauma.
Bottom line: A change in your mental health is super common in college. In fact, it’s almost expected. As a psychotherapist I cannot strain the use of professional support enough. None of use think you’re crazy and none of use think your problems are silly. You don’t need to diagnose yourself either. If you’re feeling different than usual and you know something isn’t quite right, go to Counseling Services or reach out to a clinician in the community. Go talk to someone.
Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher has her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Providence College and her master’s in Rehabilitation Counseling & Disability Studies from Salve Regina University. She also obtained her CAGS in Mental Health from Salve Regina University. She is currently a licensed therapist in RI (LMHC) and the co-owner of a private practice, Polaris Counseling & Consulting in Pawtucket, RI.