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College and the Onset of Mental Illness

College and the Onset of Mental Illness

For many, college is supposed to be a fun time in life. Despite the challenge of passing classes and learning independence, college is often viewed as an exciting milestone. However, this is not the case for everyone. Some experience the onset or increase of mental health issues due to the stress experienced while in college. We all should be more aware of mental health issues to make college a more pleasant experience for everyone.  

 Many of these students go unnoticed. They try to hide their struggles or avoid them all together. Sometimes they fail/drop classes, sometimes the isolate, sometimes they leave the college or university altogether, and sometimes their struggle ends in suicide. Jameson Hirsh and other researchers found from their research in 2017 reported, “college students are a population particularly vulnerable to stressors; for instance, 43.7% of college students report experiencing above-average stress, 11% report tremendous stress, and 30.3% describe a negative impact of stress on academic performance.” These are the students we often wonder “What happened to them?” We often miss the signs and interpret it as them being lazy, uninterested, or changing. 

The onset of mental health illness is backed by statistical data and research. Dr. Julie Jones reported in 2018 that “Clinical conditions such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, and even panic are common experiences for college students due to the many new stressors and pressures that come with the new academic and relational college experiences.” The new experience of college comes with so many new stressors. These stressors can range from adjusting to a new location, navigating college life, trying to make new friends, having challenging courses, and financial strain. Even if the stressors are somewhat managed, they can still affect a college student’s functioning. According to Dr. Jones, “lower levels of stress and anxiety can still cause student’s distress and functional difficulties in sleep, time management, school performance, social interactions, and decision-making.” While these stressors can happen at various times in life, people seem to experience them all at once during their college journey.  Some professors are not aware of the underlying issues that students may be facing outside of the classroom.  



Photo courtesy of Psychology Today 2014

Photo courtesy of Psychology Today 2014

In addition to years of research, Lindsay Stickler of Virginia Commonwealth University was able to shed some light on this topic. Mrs. Stickler guides and assists students with their internships during their time at the university. Previously, Mrs. Stickler worked in the human services field for over ten years. She shared her expertise in working with students and being able to recognize the onset of mental illness.

When asked about contributes to mental illness onset, Mrs. Stickler stated, “Mental health issues can be triggered in stressful situations. There are many factors of stress associated with going to college. This could be a person’s first time being away from family or not having any friends at the college they are attending. The amount of coursework can be overwhelming for some. College can also be expensive, and a person’s first time having to manage their own finances and learning how to budget. Also, students could be introduced to new people/new activities/partying resulting in the possibility of peer pressure. Due to the amount of stress that can come about with going to college, this can most likely cause the onset of mental health issues. This could include different varieties of depression, anxiety, and even substance abuse.”  

Following this, Mrs. Stickler was asked for a suggestion on making colleges more sensitive to students who are dealing with mental health issues. She provided the following feedback, “I believe the biggest support a professor or college staff can provide is a listening ear, but to ensure they are hearing what the student is saying. If the information is unknown territory for the professor, then referring the student to a school counselor or advisor and then following up with the student to see if they followed through with the recommendation. Ultimately, a college staff can be the most supportive by being informed of mental health issues and recognizing signs. Additionally, knowing who and where to refer someone in need.” 

It should be remembered that being more social or utilizing social media too much, will not change the effects of college stress and the onset of mental health issues. It is more complicated than that, and that’s why universities must make their classrooms and campuses more aware and accommodating for those struggling with mental illness. In 2018, Kimberly Hubbard and other assisting researchers found that “college students show low rates of help-seeking behavior despite being at risk for experiencing stressors and mental health problems.” If the environment is right, maybe more college students will be open to talking about their issues and seeking help.  

With the help of professors and other college personnel, students can have an amazing experience despite their struggles. However, universities must have the resources to help students’ transition. Hubbard’s research also suggests “intentional campus-wide efforts to educate students, faculty, and staff about the different types of stressors and symptoms students experience could potentially reduce stigma and increase awareness, referrals to appropriate campus resources, and help-seeking behavior.” A few changes can have a major impact. Change the stigma of mental illness one student at a time! 

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