If you're a college student, you're probably tired of hearing 'college is a stressful time.' But behind every cliché is a bit of truth. You might be living on your own for the first time and being asked to juggle an enormous academic load, navigate new social groups, and even work a job to stay afloat. You're trying to make your parents happy, please professors, perform up to your own standards, and figure out what to do with your life -- balancing all of these demands can be exhausting and, in many cases, downright dangerous for your health.
In fact, an American College Health Association (ACHA) survey found that three out of five college students reported 'overwhelming anxiety' during the 2018-2019 school year, and 40% 'felt so depressed they had difficulty functioning.' Perhaps most troubling is a finding from the National Institute of Mental Health: suicide is now the second leading cause of death for college students. For these reasons, we can't stress enough how incredibly important it is to look after your mental health in college.
This guide offers some real, tangible things you can do right now to take charge of your mental health and live your best life. You'll find tips for self-care and guidance on where to find on- and off-campus resources. We'll also touch on some of the unique mental health challenges that COVID-19 has presented for college students and what you can do about it.
Mental Health Tips for College
Whether you're transitioning from high school to college or your graduation date is on the horizon, incorporating some of these life tweaks into your routine can help you feel more positive, up your productivity, and improve your physical and mental health. Taking these steps now can turn your college experience from a stressful, potentially damaging time into a challenging period of personal growth, social connection, and academic success.
One caveat, though: don't feel like you need to do all of these things every day to be a complete person. Try to incorporate what works for you and forgive yourself if you fail at them.
Pay Attention to Your Nutrition
The food you eat can actually have a huge impact, positively or negatively, on your mental health. Eating lots of processed, sugar-filled, and high-fat foods can increase anxiety, fatigue, and even depression. With the college student penchant for late-night fast food, quick snacks on the way to class, and school cafeteria offerings that aren't always the healthiest, it can be hard to eat well in college. Hard, but not impossible. Here are a few ways to do it:
- Buy Healthy Staples. While your mini-fridge isn't going to have room for every wheatgrass smoothie, vegan ramen bowl, and kale salad at Whole Foods, you can keep it stocked with healthy items that don't go bad quickly. That might include veggies, hummus, nuts, fruits, and multi-grain crackers.
- Carry Fruit. When you leave your dorm room, remember keys, wallet, books, and…fruit! Even if you're not hungry and you think you won't eat it, throw it in your backpack as a failsafe. If you do get hungry, you're much better off grabbing that apple or banana than choosing something out of a vending machine or the doughnut place on-campus.
- Choose Your Cafeteria Food Wisely. Your school's cafeteria probably offers a wide variety of options, some of which are healthy and some of which are not. Making that choice can seem daunting, but look at it as another learning opportunity. Most colleges have nutritional information on their food offerings and some colleges even have a nutritionist who can help you make informed choices about your diet. The good choices you make will build your food confidence and help establish healthier habits.
- Improve Your Plate Some nutritionists help people eat better by helping them understand what their plate should look like. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made a cool website (and an accompanying app) called MyPlate that can help you do that for free. You can take quizzes to see where your plate stands, get recommendations for improving it, and get easy, cheap recipes you can make in any dorm room or apartment.
- Eat Better Fast Food. If you're going to eat fast food, try to make it an occasional treat and opt for higher-quality places or options. For example, if it's between fried food and something else, choose the something else. Or, if it's between food that's been frozen or processed and a place that prepares food fresh, choose the fresh food. It still might not be good for you, but it's the lesser evil, and piling up these lesser-evil choices can make a difference in the long run.
It might sound overly simplistic to say, 'drink water,' but study after study has linked hydration with mental wellness. That's because your brain needs a lot of water to function, and brain activity is primarily what drives mental health. While it's true that not drinking enough water isn't going to cause things like depression, stress, and anxiety, it does help mitigate and alleviate the negative psychological and physiological impacts of these things.
- Drain your brain of energy
- Impede serotonin production (your brain's 'happy' chemical)
- Can lead to (or exacerbate) panic attacks
- Increase cortisol production (the stress chemical)
Aside from feeling thirsty, there are several indicators that you need to drink more water. These include:
- Increased hunger (your brain can send hunger signals when it needs water)
- Cramps/weak muscles
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shallow breathing
- Bad breath
So, this begs the question -- how much water do you need to drink? Experts disagree and it turns out that the eight glasses a day thing was an almost arbitrary number invented by one man in the 1940s. The truth is that there's no hard and fast rule about how much H20 you should be getting every day, partly because we get some of our water from food (just like our brains, a baked potato is 75% water).
However, you should aim for 15.5 cups of water (124 oz.) for men and 11.5 cups (92 oz.) for women. If you're experiencing dehydration symptoms, live in a hot climate, or have been exercising, you'll definitely want to increase that amount. If you have trouble drinking a tasteless liquid all day, try adding a squeeze of lemon, getting a fruit diffuser, or adding those store-bought flavor drops.
Here's another fun way to tell if you're dehydrated -- check out your pee and tell your friends about it (the second part is optional). If you're good and hydrated, your urine should be somewhere between colorless and the color of light straw and or transparent yellow. If it's dark yellow or amber, drink some water straightaway. If it's the color of brown ale, you've been drinking too much Newcastle or you're severely dehydrated. Either way, start chugging. If it's pink, green, blue, or orange, head to the school's medical facility.
Get Enough Exercise
As a college student, a lot is working against you when it comes to staying fit and active. You're sitting on your butt in class for much of the day, writing term papers overnight, and knocking out homework the rest of the time. None of these activities count as cardio or build muscle, the two things that experts say your college body needs to stay mentally and physically healthy. So, how do you fit exercise into a busy school/work/social schedule? Here are some ideas:
- Use the Buddy System. There's nothing like a little accountability to keep us doing the right thing. Making plans to exercise with a friend (or friends) at a predetermined date a few times a week can help you show up, stay motivated, and have fun while you're working out.
- Make a Fashion Statement. Wear your gym clothes under your regular clothes and rip them off Superman-style after class. Or, just be that person who wears gym clothes to class (if it's appropriate). Just being in yoga pants, gym pants shorts, or running shoes can be enough to motivate you to get active as soon as class ends.
- Do Homework White You Work Out. Have to motor through another exciting chapter of your Intermediate Accounting textbook? Get the audio version (or use a text-to-speech app), pop in your headphones, and absorb the information while you run, bike, or lift.
- Take the Scenic Route. Setting aside an extra 10 to 20 minutes to walk to class the long way might not seem like much but it can actually do wonders, especially if your path includes some nature. Doing this four or five times a week is a sneaky way to add at least an hour of exercise without much effort. It may not seem like much but a micro-change like this can make all the difference in the world.
- Sign Up for a Class. We know. You're already up to your eyeballs in classes. But unlike your other classes, joining an exercise class (anything that gets you going, like yoga, spinning, lifting, Pilates, or hip-hop dance) will help you destress. And, you may even be able to combine the two: some universities offer college credit for taking an exercise class.
- Join an Intramural League or Sports Club. Joining a league or a sports club at your college is a fantastic way to stay motivated and get fit. Keep in mind that it doesn't have to be any of the 'big' sports. Colleges offer everything under the sun: Quidditch teams, live-action roleplaying, badminton, kayaking, rugby, gymnastics, and much, much more.
Get Enough Sleep
Pulling all-nighters to get assignments done and going to house parties until the wee hours of the morning are both a part of the cliché of the college experience but not getting enough sleep can have a profound effect on your mental health. Getting more Zs can lead to more As, a better mood, and a healthier life balance.
But how do you do it when you've got papers due, classes to attend, shifts to knock out, and friends to meet up with? Here are some realistic things you can do to improve your shut-eye:
- Try to Stick to a Routine. Your body loves to operate according to rhythms; it functions best when it goes to sleep at the same time, gets food at the same time, and goes to sleep at the same time (we actually have what are called 'clock genes' in every organ). This can be really hard to do, especially with the often-chaotic schedule that college demands but the difference it makes can be night and day.
- Turn Off Those Screens. Don't fall asleep with the TV on and give yourself at least thirty minutes before bed when you don't look at your phone or computer. Opt for meditation, reading, or other wind-down activities.
- Make Your Bed Only For Sleep. As much as you can, keep your bed reserved for sleep and not activities that cause anxiety (like studying). Doing this helps your brain associate it with relaxation, which can help improve sleep efficiency (the amount of time you spend in bed sleeping).
- Avoid Afternoon Caffeine. While it's the go-to fuel for staying alert in class and knocking out assignments, caffeine can increase brain wave activity for up to eight hours, so drinking it in the afternoon can severely impact your ability to fall asleep. And, even if you do nod off, your sleep tends to be lighter and less refreshing. As an alternative, reach for water and an energy-rich snack like an apple.
- Limit Naps. Power naps are an awesome way to regain energy and focus, but only if you use them properly. Experts advise taking them before 4 p.m. and keeping them to about 20 to 30 minutes.
- Consider Supplements. You don't want to become dependent on them, but when used properly, supplements like melatonin can help you fall asleep naturally and get good quality sleep without feeling groggy in the morning. Melatonin should be taken at least 30 minutes before bed and you should start winding down when you take it (i.e., shut off the lights, turn off your screens).
Make Time for Self-Care
In college, it can feel like you're getting pulled in all directions. Your professors need you to turn in your assignments ASAP, your job wants you to work more hours, your parents are asking about your grades, and your friends are asking you to hang out. Doing something for yourself in the midst of all these obligations can feel indulgent but it can help you be a sharper student, a more conscientious worker, and a better friend to those around you.
The first step you should take is to identify the things that really help you feel pampered and refreshed. Some tried-and-true ways to get some self-care time include getting out in nature by hitting the park or going for a restorative hike.
You might also practice yoga or take 20 minutes to meditate. Both are incredibly healthy ways to manage stress and they're easy to do -- check out YouTube videos or apps that can teach you poses or breathing strategies.
While we suggest trying proven practices like these, you can find your own zen. Maybe it's popping on your headphones and chilling out, watching a really stupid show on Netflix, or cleaning your dorm room. If it's healthy and it helps you check in with yourself or destress, make time in your day for it.
Organizations for Student Support
Students at some schools have started organizations designed to expressly help other students who are struggling with mental health. These student groups usually offer programs, training, and other services that aim to help students manage their mental health and learn about what resources are available on-campus. Joining a student group like this can connect you to peers who understand exactly what you are going through. You might even be able to help someone who is having a difficult time with their mental health.
Diverse Student Groups
Other student clubs exist to help students from diverse backgrounds find fellowship, support, and camaraderie. They may not deal directly with mental health but being a member can help you build a support system that carries you through college.
There are groups that:
- Host sports games for LGBTQ (and ally) students
- Fight for equality, inclusion, and diversity in higher education
- Offer peer support and mentorships to Undocumented students can
- Organize events for veteran students
- Celebrate Indigenous students' cultures
- Focus on Latin American causes
- Provide fellowship for students from a particular religion (and atheists, humanists, and more)
Not all of these groups will be available on your campus, so check to see what your school offers.
Most colleges across the country offer counseling centers where students can go to talk through problems with a therapist, get resources for maintaining mental health, and learn coping skills.
Each one is a little different but many offer things like:
- Drug and alcohol counseling
- Short-term cognitive behavioral therapy for individuals
- Couples counseling
- Crisis intervention resources
- References to long-term counseling outside of school
- Wellness seminars and workshops
- Icebreaker events for students struggling with mental wellness
If it's academic issues that are causing you anxiety and stress, you might check in with your school's tutoring center. Colleges often have robust, free tutoring services that typically offer one-on-one tutoring in-person or online and study groups where you can join with their peers to help tackle a subject.
Some offer free, individual help with time management skills, making to-do lists, talking to professors, and note-taking. Other tutoring centers have special services devoted to helping you write, letting you chat with a writing tutor online, attend writing workshops, get one-on-one help with papers, and hear from guest speakers who are noted writers.
Almost every college in the country has some sort of learning/tutoring center so be sure to see what services your school offers.
The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act make sure that colleges can't discriminate against you based on a mental health challenge and must make reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities, including those facing mental health challenges.
Most schools will do what they can to help, and your school may be able to make accommodations for you, such as:
- Giving you extra time for tests
- Letting you take tests in an environment that works better for you
- Granting you a leave of absence without repercussions financially or academically
- Offer you priority class registration
- Help you reduce your course load
- Offer mentoring and tutoring support
- Give you the option to switch rooms and/or roommates
- Extend your assignment deadlines
To request special accommodations, you'll need to disclose your mental illness to the college. There are confidentiality laws in place that mean the school cannot share that information. You'll want to begin by identifying some of the accommodations that might help you succeed. You'll then want to take these to your school's disability resource center, where they will help you understand your options and let you know what documents, if any, they will need. If you are seeing a counselor at the school, he or she may be able to help you (and advocate for you) through the process.
General Resources for College Mental Health
There are so many fantastic organizations out there that are devoted to the mental health of college students. We can't profile them all here but we'll give you a cross-section of resources that can help you stay happy, healthy, and thriving in college.
After the suicide of her brother, University of Pennsylvania student Alison Malmon started Active Minds to end the stigma of talking about mental health on campus. Now, 18 years later, Active Minds boasts more than 550 chapters, a presence on more than 800 campuses and a reach that includes 600,000 students every year. Active Minds chapters bring in guest speakers, hold awareness programs, and help college students talk freely about mental health struggles.
The Trevor Project
The Trevor Project offers LGBTQ college students a safe place to explore identity, support for coming out, and even a social network called TrevorSpace. They also offer TrevorText, TrevorChat, and Trevor Lifeline, all of which offer 24/7 help from counselors trained specifically in LGBTQ issues.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America is devoted to helping people prevent, manage, and ultimately cure depression and anxiety in their lives. From its site, you can find a wealth of information on these and other related disorders, including tips for managing them, links to online support groups, and places to find help.
National Alliance on Mental Health
The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) is the biggest grassroots organization in the country devoted to helping the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI offers a huge variety of resources, including a video library, support groups, online discussion groups, and the NAMI HelpLine (1-800-950-6264), where you can find support and understanding. There are 600 local NAMI chapters, also; each is a little different but all of them are welcoming communities where anyone can find help for dealing with mental health issues.
National Eating Disorders Association
The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is the biggest non-profit organization in the nation that helps people overcome eating issues like anorexia and bulimia. They provide advocacy, raise awareness on college campuses, and run programs like the Body Project, which helps women learn to love their bodies.
Start Your Recovery
For many college students, mental health issues can stem from addiction to drugs and alcohol. Start Your Recovery is one of many organizations that want to help college students recover from substance abuse issues. They offer tons of resources on the subject, plus a tool for locating counseling, support groups, and rehab centers in your area.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a government program run by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services that provides connections to help with almost every substance abuse or mental health issue out there. You can find treatment nearby, connect with campus mental health groups, and speak to someone through the National Helpline - 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
COVID-19 Mental Health Strategies for College Students
COVID-19 has completely upended life around the world and college students are no exception. You've had to switch to online classes, forego the normal college experience, and struggle with the anxiety and stress of a new way of life. That's taken its toll mentally and many experts believe it will have a ripple effect on the mental health of students for years to come. Aside from the tips we've offered above -- exercise, hydration, sleep, and resources -- there are many things you can do to stay healthy throughout this global pandemic.
- Limit Social Media and News. You should be following the news, but only inasmuch as it keeps you informed and connected. Feeding into the 24-hour news cycle and spending endless hours scrolling social media tends to leave us feeling anxious, stressed, and burnt out. Experts say you should limit your news intake to about 30 minutes a day and do the same for your social media activities.
- Let Go of What You Can't Control. A lot of the stress surrounding the coronavirus pandemic has involved the unknown. Will my family members be okay? Will I be able to finish classes? How will I do my internship or make money to pay for school? How and when will all of this end? We often overthink and exaggerate the unknown. This is called anticipatory anxiety; evolution put it there for a good reason -- to keep us on our toes for potential danger -- but it can suck when we get caught in this cycle of worry about things that haven't happened. Instead, ask yourself, 'Is there anything I can do about it now?' If not, let it go and trust that it will work itself out and that you'll have the ability to deal with it at the right time.
- Stay Busy. Sitting around the house all day without a plan is a great way to give your brain time to create more stress and anxiety. To combat this, set your alarm and start your day with purpose -- knock out projects you've wanted to do, go for a run, read a book you've always wanted to read, Zoom with friends, head to the park, do something creative, or try something you've never done before. Doing this will establish a sense of normalcy, stave off boredom, and keep your brain active.
- Stay Connected. Stay in contact with friends and family members through video apps, texting, and chatting. In uncertain times, feeling that sense of connection can really help manage feelings of anxiety and fear. One idea is to host a virtual watch party using many of the popular streaming outlets. Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix all have built-in ways to stream content together and chat while you do. 'If you find you are struggling with your mental health and having thoughts about suicide, seek help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or contacting the Crisis Text Line by texting 'TALK' to 741741.