The Importance of Maintaining Mental Health in College

By Dr. Deborah Tull and Dr. Jay Feldman | Sep. 01, 2017

Did you know that colleges and universities are more aware of college students’ mental health needs now than ever before? Thanks to current research findings, they are doing a much better job understanding the link between mental health and academic success.

The American College Health Association informs colleges (and all of us) that mental health needs are almost directly related to measures of academic success. Their 2015 survey found that students who reported psychological distress also reported receiving lower grades on exams or important projects; receiving lower grades in courses; receiving an “incomplete” or dropping courses altogether; or experiencing a significant disruption in thesis, dissertation, research or practicum work.

Thus: Students should place a priority on maintaining their mental health while in college. This can be challenging while also becoming a successful student. So, how can you manage this balance? Here are some tips:

Engage in a Self-Assessment Process

Getting to know yourself is foundational to your success. Being self-aware will not only help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, but it can also help you identify which learning strategies and mental health coping strategies are most effective for you. Your college’s counseling center might have resources and individuals to help you perform a fuller, more in-depth assessment, if you’d like help.

Develop A Support Network

Form a group of friends. Having people you can count on to talk to and spend time with can make a huge difference on your college experience. If you’re going through a hard time and don’t feel comfortable talking to your friends about it, seek help professional help. Your school likely has a counseling center for that purpose. And it’s essential to keep all your doctor and therapy appointments. It’s also important to have support academically if you need it. Go to your school’s tutoring center and remember: College faculty and staff are there to help you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or request extra help if you need it.

Get Organized

Being organized reduces stress and improves performance. At the beginning of each semester, set up a student success notebook with all your course syllabi, needed books, assignments and tests highlighted. If you get organized at the beginning of the semester, it will help you to always have important information at your fingertips. There will be little chance of losing key information and becoming overwhelmed with confusion about what you should be doing.

Take Care of Your Physical Health

Eat regular meals (this is especially true before you go to class or take a test!), exercise and get plenty of sleep. Some activities like meditation and yoga will also help with stress. Speak with your counselor or therapist about when to take any medication you may be on to best support learning and healthy sleep. Master Time Management

Class activities, tests and quizzes, homework and social commitments—even the everyday pressures of life—can lead to time management overload. And when time management skills are pushed to their limits, stress levels can rise to unhealthy levels. Procrastination creates major, unnecessary stress. So: Be on time to class. Turn in assignments on time. Set up a study schedule and stick to it. And make sure you balance your work schedule with time for leisure.

As you head off to college, embrace a success-oriented mindset with the goal of shaping your life and making a difference in the world around you. Have confidence in your ability to succeed. Remember to always value yourself. Treat yourself with kindness and respect and avoid being overly self-critical. Let others know if you need help. Develop an understanding of the resources you need and the resources available to you. These include not just what your college offers, but organizations like NAMI, The JED Foundation and The Steve Fund. There are millions of like-minded individuals rooting for your success.

You will gain self-esteem, empowerment and motivation to keep going with each success. It doesn’t matter if those successes are big or small—you will find that your successes will help you define your path.

Jay Feldman has a doctoral degree in Psychology and has pursued research as a professional focus. He is currently a Senior Research Associate at RTI, International.
Deborah Tull has a doctoral degree in Psychology and has pursued research and college and university mental health program development as a professional focus.

Know the Warning Signs

Trying to tell the difference between what expected behaviors are and what might be the signs of a mental illness isn't always easy. There's no easy test that can let someone know if there is mental illness or if actions and thoughts might be typical behaviors of a person or the result of a physical illness.

Each illness has its own symptoms, but common signs of mental illness in adults and adolescents can include the following:

Excessive worrying or fear
Feeling excessively sad or low
Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
Avoiding friends and social activities
Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
Changes in sex drive
Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don't exist in objective reality)
Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (”lack of insight” or anosognosia)
Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
Thinking about suicide
Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance

Mental health conditions can also begin to develop in young children. Because they’re still learning how to identify and talk about thoughts and emotions, their most obvious symptoms are behavioral. Symptoms in children may include the following:

Changes in school performance
Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance fighting to avoid bed or school
Hyperactive behavior
Frequent nightmares
Frequent disobedience or aggression
Frequent temper tantrums

Where to Get Help

Don’t be afraid to reach out if you or someone you know needs help. Learning all you can about mental health is an important first step. Reach out to your health insurance, primary care doctor or state/country mental health authority for more resources.