The college years can be a difficult time. For many, it is a significant transition in every way: academically, socially, and even geographically. Even once the initial shock wears off, many college students find themselves overwhelmed by the pressures and demands of college life. There is a pressure to dedicate yourself wholly to your studies based on the idea that academic performance relates directly to future “success” — a sometimes-toxic concept equating the amount of money you make with your worth as a person.
Then there is the added stress of financial issues, navigating social relationships of all kinds, and the widespread use of drugs and alcohol. With all this going on, it can be difficult to prioritize self-care in college, sometimes because it seems there just is no time for it. All of these things combined can leave college students more susceptible to mental health problems.
Mental Health Problems and College Students
Research shows a strong link between college students and mental health issues. A 2016 study found that 39 percent of students struggle with at least one mental illness. The same study found that the percentage of students who have considered suicide while in school rose to 11 percent, up from recent years’ 6 to 8 percent (1).
According to the Spring 2014 National College Health Assessment, 33 percent of students surveyed reported experiencing depression symptoms so severe that it interfered with their normal function. In the same survey, 55 percent reported experiencing severe anxiety, and 87 percent reported feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities.
In a report published by The American College Health Association (ACHA), students reported depression and anxiety as two of the biggest factors affecting their academic performance (2).
This is reflected in part by the growing number of students seeking professional help for their mental health issues. In 2017, the National Council on Disability found that students were often placed on waiting lists for counseling services due to high demand (3).
Implementing an effective self-care routine can help combat the onset of mental health issues and cope with existing ones.
Little Ways to Practice Self-Care In College
Take care of your body by:
- maintaining a regular sleep routine, and making sure to get enough sleep (6 to 8 hours is the general recommended guideline, but do what feels right for you)
- drinking enough water and eating enough food at regular intervals, both for the nutrients/energy and for enjoyment
- maintaining a regular exercise routine of something you enjoy that makes you feel good, including walks
- letting yourself rest when you are sick and seeing a doctor as necessary
- maintaining good personal hygiene for overall health
Take care of your mind, emotions, and spirit by:
- keeping a journal of some kind (personal diary, gratitude journal, therapy journal, etc.)
- minimizing your use of technology and screen time
- being mindful of your Internet usage
- evaluating your social media use to make sure it is serving you in a positive way, and taking breaks from social media as needed
- intentionally setting aside time for your hobbies
- engaging in some sort of reflective practice, such as meditation
- doing calming, restorative yoga
Take care of your relationships by:
- keeping in touch with loved ones regularly
- making solid plans to meet up with a friend in a low-pressure setting
- talking to someone you trust when you are struggling, even about something unrelated to your problem
Big Ways to Practice Self-Care In College
Proper self-care can sometimes take the form of more big-picture decisions with bigger implications. For example:
Take advantage of student health services. Colleges often offer more accessible and more affordable mental health services for students. These services include counseling, resources centers, support groups, etc. There may be services you never even knew your school offered. Review your best options with the student services center or a school-affiliated health professional.
Study what you enjoy. Ideally, everyone should choose to study what they love. But if that is not an option for you, or if academia itself just does not feel enjoyable to you, find one aspect of your studies that you do enjoy. If you are truly struggling to enjoy what you study, ask yourself why you are studying what you are, whether it is a stepping stone to more interesting opportunities, then keep those future goals in mind.
Create a support system. Find friends, family members, romantic partners, therapists, instructors, etc. you can depend on. This will help you not only with emotional support but with the practical necessities of dealing with things like appointments and insurance. If you currently feel you have no one you can depend on, there are many online resources as well as numbers you can call for support.
Take time off. There is no shame in taking time off from school, whether it be for one week or a full semester. Talk to your counselor about your options and review your school’s policy for taking leave. You may also be able to accomodations made for attendance and assignment deadlines.
Have a life and identity outside of academics. Make a list of all the things that you enjoy and all the things you want to do that are unrelated to academics, and make room in your life for them.
Drop out. If you feel it is the right decision for yourself, drop out. College is not worth compromising on your health and safety. Take it one day at a time.