College Years Interrupted by Psychological Distress
College years are known as some of the best years of a person’s life. Whether attending a large public college or a small private campus, students often experience a new way of learning and adapt to the freedom of their surrounding environment. Most students experience stress when they make first contact with the university, including the challenges of organizing their schedules and picking their majors (Saleh, Camart, & Romo, 2017). Some students have a positive response to the ongoing pressure of weekly assignments, frequent exams, and different social interactions. Others may become overwhelmed by the changes and have difficulties adjusting and coping, resulting in mental health related problems. Students often fail to realize how stress, anxiety, sadness, and lack of sleep, can take a toll on their learning ability and productiveness. According to health surveys, young people from 12 to 25 years old suffer from an insufficient level of psychological health. When compared to individuals of the same age, and, in general, to any other population, students have more psychological problems (Saleh, Camart, & Romo, 2017). When focusing on college-aged students, ranging from age 18 to 24, studies have found that between 70-85% of them were suffering from psychological distress, particularly anxiety and depressive symptoms (Saleh, Camart, & Romo, 2017).
Why does stress and psychological discomfort occur so frequently within this age group?
The frontal lobe is a powerful part of the brain, responsible for a wide range of higher order functioning, including emotional expression, problem solving, impulse control, memory, language, judgements, and managing social behavior. While most people believe individuals mature around the age of 18, many parts of the brain continue developing into our 20s and the frontal lobe doesn’t fully develop until we are 25 (Johnson, Blum, & Giedd, 2009)! While students are discovering themselves and dealing with the complexities of college, their brains are undergoing significant changes. Mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, can result from problems with the communication systems in the brain due to lack of full development (National Institute of Health, 2007). The numerous adjustments in environment, routine, social support system, and the brain can help us begin to understand why college students are at high risk for experiencing mental illness (National Institute of Health, 2007). For these reasons, it is important to understand the common symptoms and treatments for this particular population.
What are some common mental illnesses that occur in college-aged students?
While students may struggle with a diverse range of mental illnesses, some of the most common ones are depression- and anxiety-related disorders. These disorders can manifest due to an inability to cope with and manage stress. Stress is something we all experience. It is our body’s way of reacting to challenges, demands, and threats. There is “good stress” and “bad stress.” We label stressors based on our perceptions and responses to specific situations. When looking at stress specifically, a study showed that 79% of students suffer from “bad stress” (Saleh, Camart, & Romo, 2017). The stress that occurred caused psychological discomfort for the students, hindering their ability to be productive and leading to low self-esteem. As you might imagine, low self-esteem is directly linked to depression- and anxiety-related disorders (Saleh, Camart, & Romo, 2017).
Depression is more than just a sad mood, it also includes having symptoms such as a loss of interest in activities that one used to enjoy, a change in appetite or weight, oversleeping or difficulty sleeping, physical slowing or agitation, energy loss, feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt, difficulty concentrating, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide (National Institute of Health, 2007). In one study, researchers found that 79% of their student sample reported depression-related symptoms, while 86% believed they had anxiety-related problems (Saleh, Camart, & Romo, 2017). A national epidemiology study found that between 7-9% of all college students struggle with depression and that almost 12% struggled with an anxiety disorder (Pedrelli, Nyer, Yeung, Zulauf, & Wilens, 2015). These percentages show the documented occurrences of stress, depression and anxiety in college students, but all students experience stress in some form. Students often have difficulties coping with these issues and do not always seek the proper treatment due to stigmas surrounding mental illnesses.
Why is there so much stigma around mental illness?
People who have mental illnesses are seen as bad, dangerous, weak, or crazy (National Institute of Health, 2007). They are avoided by others and the words “mental illness” are seen as shameful to those who have one. Despite these beliefs, many individuals (1 in 5 U.S. adults) struggle with mental illness, so they are fairly common. Many are just like you and me, they have jobs, go to school and have families of their own. The discrimination that people face can often be as disabling as the illness itself (National Institute of Health, 2007). The best way to reduce this stigma is to provide accurate information and awareness about mental illnesses. This can help to change the overall attitude of those who do not realize the harmful effect a stigma can have on a group of people.
Every mental illness has its own personal characteristics. Below are some warning signs that can draw red flags to potential mental illnesses:
Changes in personality or mood
Poor coping skills
Increased worrying and anxieties
Long term sadness
Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
Suicidal or thoughts of self-harm
Extreme mood swings
Alcohol or drug abuse
Excessive anger or violent behavior
What to do if these signs arise?
Although many college students have changes in eating and sleeping patterns due to all-nighters for mid-terms and procrastinated assignments, this should not last for more than a short period of time. If the signs continue and begin to influence someone’s mood, relationships, work, and academics, it is time to seek help. Most universities and colleges have a counseling center on campus to help students who are struggling. There are also ways to find support groups around your campus or in the local communities. Start by talking to a family member or friend who can assist you with finding help. Keep the conversations going and build awareness into mental illness. If you would like to schedule an appointment with one of our mental health providers, please reach out to us here.
Bystritsky, A., Khalsa, S. S., Cameron, M. E., & Schiffman, J. (2013). Current Diagnosis and Treatment of Anxiety Disorders. Pharmacy and Therapeutics, 38(1), 30–57.
Johnson, S. B., Blum, R. W., & Giedd, J. N. (2009). Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy. The Journal of Adolescent Health : Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, 45(3), 216–221.
National Institutes of Health (US); Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. NIH Curriculum Supplement Series [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institutes of Health (US); 2007. Information about Mental Illness and the Brain. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK20369/
Pedrelli, P., Nyer, M., Yeung, A., Zulauf, C., & Wilens, T. (2015). College Students: Mental Health Problems and Treatment Considerations. Academic Psychiatry : The Journal of the American Association of Directors of Psychiatric Residency Training and the Association for Academic Psychiatry, 39(5), 503–511.
Saleh, D., Camart, N., & Romo, L. (2017). Predictors of Stress in College Students. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 19.
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