7 Ways to Save Your Mental Health in College

August 28th 2015

Bright, smiling, engaged—this is what college is, according to the folds of brochures that capture the picture-perfect posed moments. While staged, for many collegiate students this is essentially what higher education looks like most of the time: working in the chemistry lab, listening to a lecture, playing ultimate Frisbee on the lawn, laughing with friends (in branded college gear!) in a dorm room.

However, for some students there is another storyline that the recruiting pamphlets don’t tell. Midst Greek life, football tailgating and quirky student clubs there is the unwelcome presence of overwhelming pressure, anxiety, and depression.

College takes students into a new chapter outside of their previous comfort zone of living at home with family, attending high school, getting good grades, and playing sports. Freshman year can hit harder than expected for some students. Class expectations are different, more difficult, and good grades are just as important—especially if a master’s or Ph.D. is in the future. Living with a roommate can test the limits of communication and then there are the professional expectations of finding an internship and the financial obligations for finding a part-time (or on-campus) job. College athletes can face an extra pressure of high performance to keep scholarships.

Since the mid-1990s there has been a significant increase in the number of college students seeking help for serious mental illness. It’s up for debate the factors behind this increase: the number of persons with mental illness are increasing, of the college environment has an increasing number of pressures, or just the number of students that are willing to seek help are increasing due to increased visibility and availability of resources.

The five most common mental health challenges for students are:

1. Mental health

So, with the pressure mounting, and the speedy course of college today, how can students work to manage their mental health? Of course, medical attention is always recommended as a primary course of action when addressing and managing a mental health issue. Start with a campus health clinic and/or counseling center. Also, consider implementing these activities into your routine for a clearer head, calmer mind, and healthier body.

2. Get moving

Exercise, other than the obvious physical benefits, offers a myriad of benefits for the modern student. Physical activity stimulates brain cells, increases focus and concentration, boosts your mood and relieves stress. Exercise can make you a better student. Choose activities that you enjoy and explore new ones. The fitness center on campus is sure to have numerous group exercise classes and intramural leagues. Sports and fitness that get your heart rate up are the goal, so whether it’s Zumba, yoga, pick-up basketball or racquetball, shoot for two hours or more a week in 30 minute or more increments. If your campus is large get a bike to cycle across campus. Fitting exercise in can be something you look forward to without adding extra pressure to the schedule.

3. Set your alarm

It can be incredibly difficult to get a good night’s rest. Between all-nighters to finish that term paper and parties that last into the morning, sleep often takes the passenger seat. The sleep needs for each person vary, but average adults need six to ten hours a night. Lost sleep accumulates into a sleep debt that leads to less than stellar brain functions; the ability to learn and retain are unhinged. Think, the better sleep you get on a habitual basis the more energy you have to actually pay attention and learn, therefore you will be less stressed about falling behind.

To get a good night’s sleep power down smartphones and laptops a little while before going to bed. Also, skip caffeine, exercise, alcohol and food right before bed.

If you need to make up some of your lost sleep take a 20-minute power nap to rejuvenate the body and relieve stress.

4. Eat green things

The all-you-can-eat dining hall buffet may seem like a great bang for your meal plan buck, but it can also add a couple notches to your belt buckle. Eat fruits, veggies, and a general well balanced diet. Thankfully this is where the dining hall works to your advantage. Fresh produce can be expensive, so load up your salad plate and choose lean proteins. Don’t eat dessert at every meal and limit the late-night pizza delivery.

Also, remember the average beer is 100 plus calories (and empty calories at that), so think about that when calculating caloric and nutritional intake.

Many residence halls have a community kitchen, so if you didn’t buy into the meal plan, take advantage of healthy eating by honing your cooking skills with easy recipes.

Invest in a water bottle you love and refill it constantly. Casually sipping on the bottle for the entire day adds up to a lot of delicious H2O.

Also, refrain from buying bulk. That jumbo bag of Skittles may seem like a good idea at the time, but if you have them around, you’ll probably eat them. Even by making smarter purchasing decisions you can help your health.

5. Pick and choose

After attending the campus activities fair it seems like there are about 13 different groups you have aligned interests with and want to be involved. Plus, student senate president wouldn’t look bad on a resume, right? Social clubs are a fantastic part of college, but pick and choose just a couple you truly want to dedicate time and energy to. It’s easy to spread yourself too thin with campus activities outside of class that end up adding to your stress level.

Understand you cannot do everything and no one expects you too. Consider being involved with one professional organization related to your major and one recreational organization centered around something you care about and love to do—hiking, badminton, the environment, mentoring children.

Volunteering, while taking time, can offer exceptional mental benefits. Studies have illustrated that helping others can make the brain feel vulnerable and to compensate the body releases oxytocin, sometimes called the “compassion hormone” that allows you to combat the stress hormones like cortisol.

If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed see where you can cut back, whether it be in extracurriculars, an extra class or a few hours at your part-time job.

6. Make new friends, but keep the old

It’s okay if you’re not best friends with your roommate right away. Not everyone is. Sometimes it takes a while to find your tribe in college. Of course homesickness and longing for those sweet summer days with your old high school friends can crop up, but embrace the new faces at college. Invest time and energy into people who are positive influences on your life. Expect that college means new relationships but understand you can stay in contact with old friends through social media, hanging out over holiday breaks, writing letters, and visiting each others’ campuses.

Don’t be a stranger to your advisor or professors; they can be a part of your support network if you let them be.

Video chat, call or text your family regularly. Just because you’re not living at home doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in how and what you’re doing.

7. Cultivate awareness

If you’ve noticed changes in behavior in yourself, a peer, or a family member that could be resulting from a worsening of mental health, it’s important to address it. If you are worried about someone else, depending on your relationship with the student, talk with them about it. Be prepared that many people will get defensive no matter how much they know you care for them. Research and recommend reaching out to the on-campus health clinic to schedule an appointment. If you think someone is contemplating or going to attempt suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Getting a loved one the help they need through counseling and medical care can make all the difference for a happy, healthy education and life.

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