To outsiders, which is to say people in their 30s and older, college life looks like a soft-drink commercial: lots of beautiful young people having fun. College students have fewer responsibilities than older people: no mortgage, no "real" job. Sure, they may study hard, but otherwise, they're partying, not yet knowing what a real hangover is like. They're only responsible is themselves, right?
Even older people who have experienced college tend to remember it as a sort of utopia, "the good old days. But in reality, it isn't and wasn't for most. More than half (56%) of students drop out by year six of their studies. Yes, college is supposed to be a four-year course, but only 41% of students finish their degrees in that time. What can you expect when the cost of attending is so fearsome?
Traditionally, college study is a full-time job, but many, perhaps most, students today have to hold down a job while going to school, sometimes more than one job. But, even if you don't have to work at a job, there's a great deal of stress in simply trying to validate your parents, spouse, and community's investment in you.
The Reality of College Life
No, college life is not the picnic we dream (or remember) it to be. It's actually incredibly stressful. According to mental health clinicians, it's a minefield of potential mental illness. A recent survey of more than 350,000 college students found that more than 60% of them had one or more mental health problems.
Furthermore, the proportion of mental health problems is up by 50% from the same survey just seven years ago, particularly among minority students. Issues include anxiety (24.1% of patients), depression (18.3%), and stress (6.1%). Of course, it's not all a result of the pandemic, either, although Covid-19 has undoubtedly contributed with its imposition of remote classes and general anxiety.
In fact, the soft-drink commercial vision of college life was never justified. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI, half of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24. In other words, the traditional college student (i.e., age 18-24) is in a time of life when mental illness is most likely to ramp up or manifest itself.
A Plea for Policy
As a society, we should provide substantial mental health resources for "college-age" people, whether they are in college or not. This is more than my empathy speaking. Early treatment is always more effective (and less expensive) than later treatment (for any illness, not just mental illness). So investing in mental health for "college-age" people can disproportionately reduce the burden of mental illness on our society.
I have plenty of ideas of how to do that, but if you're a college student concerned about your mental health, my policy discussions aren't of much practical use to you. Instead, you need advice on where to get help. Let's get to it.
Sources of Help
If you're living in a dormitory, try talking with your RA. RAs sometimes have training in mental health issues. At the very least, they probably know where to go on campus to get qualified help. In the absence of a good RA, check with your college's campus health center. They may even have one or more qualified mental health professionals on staff.
When you can't find adequate mental health care at your school (if you can't find any, let me know because that's unacceptable), you may be able to get help from a state or county mental health service. Check the websites of state and county governments to see what's available.
If you can't find help that way or if you're uncertain about whether you need assistance, you may want to consider Mental Health America, which has a website offering a battery of tests that are easy to take — no registration required — and may give you some insight into your mental health. Another website to consider is Active Minds, which promotes the mental health conversation as it affects young people. In addition to influencing policy, it also offers resources for self-care.
NAMI, one of our go-to resources, sponsors student-led, student-run mental health organizations for young people called "NAMI on Campus." Peer support is particularly effective for college students. If your college has no NAMI on Campus club, NAMI can help you start one. See this page. If you're not interested in starting an organization and want support, NAMI's page on Starting the Conversation has videos with practical advice.
Don't forget your tribe. Sometimes we think we are so alone and embarrassed about how our minds are or aren't working for us that we don't even share with the ones closest to us. I promise you, from the bottom of my heart, your loved ones want to know. Just as you would never want someone to suffer alone, when someone loves you, neither do they so, Get Loud AF about your mental health.
It Can Be Great
College life doesn't have to be a cause of despair. The great thing about college is that it is full of people in your age group who can relate to your stress. You're not alone, and if you're willing to ask for help, your college years can be as rewarding as you had hoped — maybe even better than a soft drink commercial.
I must say, as a fifty-year-old woman with mental illness, the younger generations are impressing me daily with their "I am going to talk about it because it's the right thing to do" and the "I will speak my truth even if it means you see me vulnerable" attitudes and their ability to stand firm in their boundaries is heartwarming to me.
When I was in my college-age years, I didn't know I had a mental illness, let alone talk about it. There weren't signs around campus "if you need mental health support, call this number." That isn't how it was back then. But I promise this isn't an "I walked two miles uphill both ways in the snow to get to school story."
Instead, this is a thank you and go get it to all the folks younger than I screaming against mental illness stigma, so other college-age folks know they're not alone, can access resources, and can get the help they need when they need it.
So if you or your child is heading off to college this month, find your resources now and put them in your "mental health toolbox" so you have a plan in the event you need support. In addition to what I've mentioned, we have a detailed list on our website. There is a lot you can do to stay on top of your health. So get in touch with yourself, use your tools, and know you are never alone.
One of our Doublesolid Rockstars, Marie, shared her mental health story with us and spoke the stressors she faced while in college. Ashley also talks about her struggles while studying and participating in competitive college sports. Give their inspiring stories are read. I'm sure no matter how old any of us are you will find something to connect to and the more we connect, the better we all feel.
Before I close, I want to reiterate something. Feel free to contact me if your school doesn't offer mental health support. We'll do some advocacy together. Go get it🤘
If you are interested in sharing your mental health journey with us, give becoming a Doublesolid Rockstar a consideration. Check it out!