College provides newfound independence, increased academic expectations, social dynamics, and distance from home, and can tremendously impact mental health. In this Charlie Health article, Mindpath Health’s Jasmine Kaur, MD, provides tips for caring for your mental health—plus what to do if you start to face mental health challenges.
College can be an incredible time full of self-discovery, learning, and building life-long friendships. It’s the first chance for many to lead independent lives and set their own rules. This newfound independence, in addition to academic expectations, social dynamics, and distance from home, can tremendously impact mental health—in some instances, for the worse. A 2023 Gallup and Lumina Foundation study found that nearly half of bachelor’s students and over one-third of associate degree students report “frequently experiencing emotional distress.”
How to protect your mental health when applying to college
Taking care of your mental health can be part of your college prep, along with submitting college applications and filling out financial aid forms. Protecting your mental health during the college application process is particularly important for people with a mental health condition, as anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions can make the process more challenging.
It’s important to remember, though, that everyone deals with challenges during the transition to college, says Dr. Dana Wang, a psychiatrist.
Build a support network
Having a group of people you can actively rely on—whether it be friends from high school, family, or mentors—can go a long way toward making you feel less alone as you prepare for your first year of college. “If you already know friends who will be attending college with you, invest in these friendships if they are healthy for you,” says Dr. Jasmine Kaur, a psychiatrist at Mindpath Health who has experience working with adolescents. “Practice spending time with your family regularly, which could include video or phone calls with them, especially if you tend to get homesick.”
Learning about different mental health disorders can be really beneficial whether you already live with one or don’t have much experience with them. Angela Ficken, a psychotherapist, recommends learning warning signs and symptoms of poor mental health so you can recognize them if need be.
Prepare coping strategies
Similarly, Kaur recommends coming up with a mental health game plan before getting to college. This isn’t the time to catastrophize, but logically think about what challenges may arise for you based on prior experiences. She recommends developing a “mental health first aid kit” where you list possible concerns, like homesickness or time management, and also generate coping strategies to turn to in each case. These tips might be as simple as knowing when to get more sleep.
There are plenty of ways to familiarize yourself with your college before stepping on campus. On the socializing side, research what extracurricular activities exist (schools typically have a whole page on their website devoted to sharing information about each club). Research what mental health resources your new school has available, from counseling to accommodations. Higher education is more than just what you learn in classrooms; it comprises all your experiences.
Practice a routine
College is a time when so many previous rules and restrictions are tossed out the window. If you go away to college, then you, for the most part, become the person in charge of yourself and getting through the day. “Self-care involves daily and weekly rituals that can significantly impact your overall well-being. These include a regular exercise routine, good sleep and nutrition, and making time for friends and family,” says Kaur. “It also includes cultivating hobbies or activities you enjoy, such as spending time in nature or cooking, which provide relaxation.”
How to prioritize your mental health in college
The shift from high school to college can feel jarring, to say the least. “Suddenly, there is a loss of structure and increased autonomy,” says Dr. Wang. Finding the balance of activities and rest that works best for you is critical to maintaining your mental health in college.
In college, you’re surrounded by a whole new group of people than in high school, all with varying skill sets and interests. It’s easy to compare yourself to those around you — but this is never beneficial. “This comes out in different iterations regarding competing for GPA, internship, job offers, and popularity,” says Wang. Academic success can come easier when you set aside study time that works for you instead of feeling stressed about the other active minds around you.
Evaluate what’s right for you
Again, there is no one right way to participate in college life. Following someone else’s plan for themselves or what you think you should be doing will typically leave you feeling unfulfilled. It’s also important not to overcommit yourself. “Getting the most out of college life does not mean that you have partied the most,” says Wang. “The feeling of missing out can be overwhelming because there is so much activity going on that one literally can not and should not partake in everything.” College is too short to stress about doing everything available.
Similarly, choosing what’s right for you often involves setting boundaries. These boundaries might include not taking on extracurricular activities just because your friend wants to join or saying no to going out or drinking.
Identify signs your mental health is worsening
Yes, sometimes you’ll just have a bad day, or an anxious thought will creep up on you. What’s important is to look for signs that your mental health is worsening as a whole. There is no marker you need to cross to validate seeking mental health help.
What to do if you experience mental health challenges in college
Sometimes, regardless of what steps you take, your brain doesn’t work the way you want it to. “Despite your best efforts, there might be times when the challenges you face seem insurmountable, and your mental health falters,” says Ficken.
Speak with trusted friends and loved ones
It can be scary, but speaking to family members or friends about your mental health experience can remove some of the weight you’re carrying and help you brainstorm the best steps to take moving forward. Wang recommends seeking out a peer support network on campus or contacting your resident advisor (RA) right down the hall. The latter can be especially helpful if any stress comes from your living situation.
Seek out health care services offered at your college
Typically, colleges will have mental health services available for students. These services are usually included for full-time students. “Many colleges also have physicians, including a general practitioner or psychiatrist, who can rule out medical conditions that might impact your mental health, help diagnose a mental health condition, and provide management of these,” adds Kaur.
Pursue academic accommodations as necessary
Academic success is important, but your school might offer accommodations if you need more time to complete your work due to mental health reasons. This might involve something like switching to an online class or pushing the due date of a homework assignment to give you more study time. Consider speaking with a faculty advisor or someone you trust who works in an administrative office to learn more about these policies.