McLean Hospital – 115 Mill Street, Belmont, MA 02478
High school students spend a great deal of time and energy preparing for college. For most students, college preparation means lots of studying, writing papers, joining extracurriculars, and hoping that all this work leads to a letter of admission from one of their top schools. The summer before college is spent saying goodbye to old friends, shopping for dorm necessities, and connecting with new roommates.
Many high school students experience an additional challenge: a mental health issue that requires treatment. Students are arriving at college with greater mental health needs than ever before. It is often assumed that college mental health centers can meet these needs—and in many cases, they can be excellent resources. However, students should also consider using community supports if their needs are greater than their college counseling center can address. Arranging supports in advance can enhance the likelihood of having a successful first year.
Students who have dealt with mental health issues in high school can absolutely go to college and be socially and academically successful. Factors that aid in the success of these students include:
According to research by the Jed Foundation, the majority of first-year college students feel emotionally underprepared for college. This sense of being overwhelmed by the college experience was expressed in the following ways:
Students who were having these kinds of feelings were more likely to have a lower GPA, and to rate their overall college experience as “terrible/poor.” These students were also more likely to regularly consume drugs or alcohol.
One issue that students noted was that they felt a great deal of pressure in high school to go to a well-known college, citing the observation that college preparation in high school can be far more focused on academic readiness than emotional readiness.
Emotional readiness to leave home and start college is described by settogo.org as:
Readiness to leave home and start college is not just a feeling; it is something that can be enhanced and targeted in specific ways. For many high school students, the focus on academic achievement has gotten in the way of some more traditional life skills, such as:
Luckily, it is possible to work on these skills before leaving for school. Students who do so are more self-reliant and capable in the face of challenges at college.
College campuses can be stressful for everyone, but minority status (the experience of being a racial minority, or being from a different culture or financial background) can result in unexpectedly high stress levels for students. For example, experiencing an unfriendly campus climate, incidents of racial discrimination, and micro-aggressions (brief, everyday exchanges that send negative messages about group membership) can result in stress responses that can have negative physical and mental health effects, as well as lead to feelings of isolation. Not seeing certain racial or ethnic identities represented widely among students, faculty, or university staff members can also contribute to feelings of not belonging, feeling like an impostor, or not feeling as connected within the college or university.
According to the Jed Foundation, students of color reported feeling less academically and emotionally prepared for college than did White students, and importantly, were also less likely to seek help for emotional difficulties and mental health symptoms. The research shows that many, many college students each year experience symptoms for which effective treatments are available. Students of color may also experience higher levels of mental health stigma, have lower expectations about how effective mental health treatment might be, and doubt that services will be culturally relevant, and they are more likely to keep emotional distress to themselves or seek support from sources other than mental health professionals.
Many treatments are known to be helpful for symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. In addition, it is important for students of color to evaluate whether their minority status on campus is a source of stress, and then to seek support early to prevent that stress from building. Specific culturally relevant coping skills, strategies, and resources can help address the challenges experienced by college students of color. Joining groups and organizations centered around creating diverse and welcoming communities of peers, faculty, and staff on campus can also be tremendously beneficial. Web resources for college students of color are listed in the Resources section.
Colleges, universities, student groups, and national organizations provide a number of excellent resources. Many campuses across the country already offer, or are currently developing, programs to better support the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color. A few examples of program types include support or discussion groups to build community; mentorship networks and leadership programs to build connections and integration throughout the campus; welcoming and supportive gathering spaces; less formal opportunities to seek support or consultation about current stressors; and tailored workshops or programs that focus on learning more about and coping with specific challenges. Programs may be located throughout campus and are frequently advertised on university web pages. To learn more about supports on specific campuses, a few key sources to consult might include the offices for multicultural student affairs, counseling and psychological services, campus/residence life, and student organizations.
Practicing healthy behaviors is important for all college students. However, it can be hard to balance taking care of your physical health, mental health, schoolwork, and other commitments in your personal life. If you are coping with a psychiatric diagnosis, adjusting to new medication, or just trying to lead a healthier lifestyle on campus, you may want to consider the following.
Psychiatric medications and alcohol do not mix. For example, alcohol can reduce or eliminate the benefit of taking antidepressant medication. Many schools offer substance-free housing and substance-free social programs to support students who want to explore these options. If you choose to drink, learn how to drink responsibly. For example, never consume alcohol on an empty stomach or alternate between alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, and never drink more than one alcoholic beverage per hour. Finally, never leave your drink unattended.
Getting a good night’s sleep can be challenging but is not impossible on a college campus. Most students underestimate the importance of sleep, and it can be easy to get caught in an unhealthy cycle of consuming stimulants, pulling all-nighters, and sleeping until noon. Stop this cycle by setting a consistent time for sleeping and waking up, avoiding studying in bed, and trying a sound machine to block out noise.
Walking to class, rock-climbing, biking, yoga classes—just do it! People who manage to incorporate exercise into their morning routine are more successful with maintaining their physical workout. Sounds like another good reason to wake up before noon!
Pizza, beer, fries, burgers—sound familiar? If so, you could be missing one of the easiest ways of boosting your mental health. Reacquaint yourself with the basic food groups and get creative about incorporating them into your daily diet. Try vegetable pizza toppings instead of pepperoni. Try adding healthy snacks rather than eliminating unhealthy ones. See what happens.
Stress management and coping skills can be learned. Consider incorporating meditation/guided imagery, journaling, talking to support people or peers, listening to music, reading, or creative arts as constructive outlets for stress.
Try to learn as much as you can about your illness or what led to your hospitalization. This knowledge will help you identify warning signs of an upcoming episode. Practice coping skills you learned in the hospital and actively seek out supportive people and relaxing activities. Check out a local gym, a quiet café, a comfortable nook in the library, or a stress-management class.