The College Student’s Guide to Mental Health (What I Wish I Knew)

female college student stressed grabbing hair holding binder

Society and pop culture portray college as a wild time loaded with sleepless nights and packed with parties, but I’ll tell you the truth. College is filled with a different type of sleepless nights when you’re suffering from mental illness — nights filled with long anxiety attacks and horrible thoughts and mornings filled with dread of attending class for fear of having an anxiety attack in the classroom.

There are things I know now that I wish I knew then, but the good news is, now I can share my tips with all of you. If you’re feeling hopeless about getting through college alive, here’s a guide for you.

1. More People Can Relate to You Than You Think

I cannot say this enough. There’s a reason your school’s counseling center is constantly booked up, trust me! Even if someone doesn’t have a preexisting mental illness, the major life change of heading off to college can precipitate on or at least trigger a server response. That’s something they don’t tell you at orientation, right?

Open up to your roommate and you may just find that you have something in common on a super personal level. When I spoke up to my first roommate about my anxiety and depression, she admitted she suffered from the same… we even were on the same medication. You may also find that your school has support groups. Do some research and ask your counselors for recommendations. But that brings me to number two.

2. Your College Therapist Isn’t Necessarily a Permanent Fix

Some colleges only provide only short term care, so don’t fall too dependent on it. I was only allowed a certain number of sessions with both the therapist and the psychiatrist for a year, and after that time I was told that the mental health center was only for short term treatment and I’d have to find an outside therapist…despite crying and having a nervous breakdown to the clinic’s director. So before you get too comfy, ask your therapist about the school’s policy. I didn’t know until it was too late.

3. There Are Support Groups Outside of School

It’s amazing how much support groups or group therapy can make you feel less alone. If you’re not keen on opening up to peers, this is a great option for you. Do some Googling or check out meetup.com to see if there are any near you that are a good fit. Don’t be wary of going and finding that you’re “the young one” there. Mental illness does not discriminate by age, and despite any age difference, you’re all in the same boat. Image how nice it must be to sit in a room with a bunch of people who know exactly what you’re dealing with. You might even find some wisdom from the older folks who have been there before. Finally, people who understand!

4. Professors Will Be Understanding

As I mentioned before, professors view you as an adult when you’re in college, and so they should treat you as such. Muster up the bravery to tell your professor on the first day of class about your mental illness and warn them that you might have to leave class early or step out for a few minutes to collect yourself should you experience a panic attack. If you feel too awkward to do that, send them an email. Chances are, they will have had experience with students like you and will be completely understanding. They’ll likely ask if there’s anything they can do to make you more comfortable.

5. You Can Go to the Bathroom Whenever You Want

Revolutionary, right? High school is so weird with hall passes and strict rules about going to the bathroom. I had one math teacher who made us use special hand signals to ask to go to the bathroom. A couple weeks in, I dropped the class because I would skip school just to avoid the ridiculous rules. Why? Because I hate feeling trapped, and so do a lot of others with anxiety.

In college, we are viewed as adults who can go to the loo as we please (as it should be). Getting up and moving, even a couple steps into the hallway to take deep breaths or into the bathroom to splash water on your face can do wonders. Take advantage of the fact that you’re suddenly treated as an adult now. Don’t feel awkward or embarrassed to silently excuse yourself from class. Seriously, everyone goes to the bathroom and you’re paying way too much to go to school and suffer silently—so just do it.

6. Know Your Limits

Remember that it’s OK to say no to things. At first, you may feel like you need to join every club, pull all-nighters, become friends with everyone, and take the hardest courses offered. Let’s be real, balancing all of these is really difficult for many people. Identify your top priorities and focus on those rather than spreading yourself too thin and creating a huge amount of anxiety. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t push yourself toward greatness, but keep your mental health foremost in your mind and be realistic.

College will inevitably put a lot of pressure on you, in many aspects. You may feel pressure to join a frat or sorority, or like you need to get a 4.0 GPA or else you’ll disappoint your parents, and strive for the Dean’s List so you can get the best job when you graduate. But nobody’s perfect, so you don’t have to be either. College is about so much more than what you think it is. It’s about self discovery and becoming wiser. Don’t let your mental illness hold you back from having the college experience you deserve.

Published by

Ashley Laderer

Contributor