Why Aren’t College Students Getting The Mental Health Support They Need?

college student with backpack walking out the door of a building

It was around 10pm when I got a knock on my freshman college dorm room. I probably had been up since 8am studying, squirreled away for most of the day in my favorite cubicle on the no-talking floor in the library. 12-hour study days were the norm for me. Monday through Sunday. No days off.

I heard the knock again and got up from my scratchy desk chair to open the door. My best friend from school was there, holding an Oreo cake in his hands.

“Come on,” he said, peeling me away from my textbooks. “It’s time to eat cake!”

It was my 18th birthday.

I walked out into the common room and to my delight, a few of my other friends were gathered around the big, clunky table in the middle, eagerly awaiting the singing of happy birthday to me. As grateful as I was, it was hard for me to be present. I couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt over taking even a 30 minute break when I knew finals were only a month away.

As my friends enjoyed my birthday cake, I just pushed it around my place, hoping no one would notice. I didn’t want to be rude or make other people feel weird, but I had promised myself I wouldn’t eat any desserts this term. I wanted to prove to myself that I could stick to my word. So no desserts. Not even on my birthday.
Now that’s some serious self-discipline, I proudly thought to myself.

Emotional Struggles in College are Common

It was freshman year of college when my anxiety, workaholism, and eating disorder flared up in epic proportions. According to Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. LPCC-S, and Ohio-based Talkspace therapist, “College-age students are susceptible to experiencing feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.”

“Navigating that transition from minor to adult can bring with it feelings of stress and anxiety,” O’Neill added. “College-age students often feel an enormous burden related to picking a college major, finding friends in college, and navigating their life post-high school.”

As someone who was always high-achieving, I hadn’t quite realized how out-of-control my perfectionism had gotten and the toll it was taking on my mental health. I had to learn the hard way the difference between healthy striving and being a perfectionist.

Healthy Striving vs. Perfectionism

According to a recent study in Psychological Bulletin, perfectionism in college students has increased 33%) in the last 27 years. This is especially troubling given perfectionism is associated with a whole host of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts.

If so many college students are suffering from perfectionism and subsequent mental health issues, then why aren’t they getting the help they need?

O’Neill thought this might have to do with confusion about how to find a therapist and how to navigate the complicated healthcare system. “Some college-age students may be reluctant to involve their families in the process of seeking mental health care,” O’Neill explained, “and yet, they may still be covered under their parent’s insurance.” This makes it tricky to find confidential care.

“[Some students] may feel ashamed or uncomfortable with the idea of seeking help,” O’Neill added. “For others, the fear of not knowing what to expect when seeking mental health care can be a barrier.”

Support College Students Need

I am still surprised that after countless trips to the college health center over my four years, not a single practitioner suggested mental health support for me. If I’m being honest, I am not sure I would have been ready for the support even if they had. But, maybe I would have. I imagine my college experience would have been more enjoyable if that were the case. In any case, colleges and universities need to do more to support the student population.

O’Neill agrees there needs to be more mental health awareness and initiatives to reduce the stigma associated with mental health disorders on college campuses. “There have certainly been some improvements over the past several years,” she shared, “however, increasing the number of on-campus mental health professionals would certainly help to increase the accessibility of services.”

“Additionally, providing students with information about messaging-based mental health apps — especially services like those offered by Talkspace — would be helpful to those students who would prefer to seek services via distance-based counseling,” she added.

It’s hard to say exactly what may have moved the needle for me to get help sooner. Maybe if I didn’t feel so alone in my struggle. Maybe if I wasn’t so scared at appearing weak. Maybe if people treated me like a normal college kid going through normal college stuff, but who needed help. The simple reminder that being human is hard sometimes might have been enough.

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