On the surface, college is amazing. Four years of freedom, parties, living with friends, no 9-5 job? Sounds like quite the life. But a closer look at most student life reveals that the Instagram pics are just a blip of what goes on in the day-to-day life of a college student. College is stressful — a successful college student has to maintain their grades, social life, (surely complicated) relationship status, physical health and plans for the future, all while trying not to look like a *total* bum at their 8 a.m. With all of that to worry about, it’s no wonder so many students struggle maintaining their mental health at school. The good news is that most college campuses have a free counseling center available for those who need professional help. But how does someone know if they should take that step?
1. You are dealing with unrelenting stress
If you’re not experiencing stress in college, you either just don’t care or you need to tell us all your secret ASAP. It’s totally normal to experience some stress, and in college it’s really a sliding scale. If you have two papers and a midterm due, no one blames you if you go a little haywire for a week or so. But if the stress and symptoms of stress persist, Dr. Lisa Adams, the director of the University of West Georgia’s counseling center, says you might want to think about seeing someone.
Dr. Adams says that if physical symptoms, like tightness in your shoulders, headache, upset stomach or butterflies, never seem to go away, that could indicate something more serious that counseling could help. “There’s a point where it’s too much, that point’s different for everyone, but it’s the point where you can’t relax, even in moments when you normally could relax, like a Saturday afternoon or Saturday night going out with friends” Dr. Adams says.
Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist, says that besides duration and persistence of stress, the severity of the stress could also indicate that you might benefit from seeing a professional. “When the stress response gets in the way of your academic work and relationships, it is beyond the ‘usual’ student stress,” Dr. Durvasula says.
2. You have trouble coping with change
We all remember starting college as freshmen—nervous, afraid, lost, uncertain of every decision you make. It’s normal to be hit hard with the overwhelming transition into college. Even if you’re not a freshman, each new year brings new challenges that could be hard on your mental health.
Dr. Adams says therapy could be a good idea just temporarily, or even if you’re confused about your mental health. “It’s okay to come in even when you don’t know if it’s time to seek help,” Dr. Adams says. “If you’re like ‘I’m not sure if I need help but these are new feelings and I don’t know how to deal with them’ just come in and see someone, maybe just two or three times, or however long, to help with the transition.”
When she started college, Cara Milhaven, a junior at Villanova, decided she needed help adjusting. "My freshman year, I decided to go talk to my university's counseling center because of how homesick I was. Talking to my friends at school and from home was helpful, but knowing that many of them were not as homesick as I was made it hard for me to feel like they really understood where I was coming from," Milhaven said. "Going to the counseling center allowed me to talk to someone who could help me organize my thoughts and get to the bottom of why I was feeling so homesick, which really helped me adapt to life on campus and being away from home for the first time."
3. You struggle with debilitating anxiety or sadness
Much of the same signs that your stress is out of hand also apply for anxiety, but high levels of anxiety could be indicative of a greater problem, like a clinical anxiety disorder, that might need continued therapy or potential medication. Depression follows a similar pattern. For example, if your sadness makes it hard to get out of bed, skip out on commitments or distance yourself from friends, an evaluation would probably be a good idea. "Generally we look at severity and duration, of any mental health problem, to determine whether it needs clinical help," Dr. Adams says.
So if you've felt sad and/or anxious for weeks at a time to such a point where it's negatively and noticeably impacting your life, pop on in to your counseling center for an intake evaluation. “An assessment can be really important to help you determine if you need further help,” Dr. Adams says. “It can help answer ‘Do I need to seek medication or regular therapy?’ and the professional opinion will help determine severity.”
4. Your previous mental health problem comes back
Maybe you had dealt with previous mental health problems before college, but no matter how much it sucks to revisit something you thought you already resolved, your mental health is too important to overlook. “Histories of mental health issue can heighten vulnerability—and the absence of your usual supports such as family, routines, as well as the social and academic pressure of school can result in an experiencing of symptoms or challenges in coping,” Dr. Durvasula says.
Luckily, nearly all college campuses have counseling centers, and Dr. Adams recommends previously diagnosed students go pay them a visit even if you’re not currently struggling. “Maybe come in before it’s triggered so that you can get some good advice and prepare for any potential triggers and develop that relationship with someone that is there if you need it,” Dr. Adams says. “Reach out early because it’s healthier to get help before the crisis.”
"I've had depression since I was 8, so it was natural for me to need counseling in college, especially since it's such a big step in your life," a freshman at UC Berkeley said. "I had a lot of trouble adjusting and was so scared of classes that I considered dropping out before the semester even started. I recommend it to anyone! There's no need to be embarrassed."
5. You feel sexual *tension*
Unfortunately, we don’t mean the good kind. We’re talking about adjusting to the college hook-up/dating culture—whatever that may mean for you. Whether you’re sexually active for the first time, maybe just more sexually active, discovering your sexuality or trying to abstain, you might find yourself in emotional distress somewhere along the line.
“It’s important that students have a safe place they can go to talk about for sexual health, whether that be a counseling center for the emotional aspects, but also the health center for the physical components,” Dr. Adam says. She recommends students who have concerns visit the health center for accurate information about safe sex (meaning birth control and STDs) then determine if something bothers them mentally too.
The emotions often tied with sex can also affect mental health if they’re not addressed. “Intimacy can be wonderful but also a tricky space. Issues around safe sex, pressure to have sex, ambivalence and broken hearts can be very difficult in college,” Dr. Durvasula says. “And the pressures and challenges of new forays into intimacy can be a stressor that compounds academic stress and can exacerbate risk for mental health issues.” You will more likely enjoy sex if you’re sure of what you’re doing, mentally and physically.
6. You begin participating in risky behavior
College can get a little crazy sometimes, and no one’s judging you for going out and enjoying yourself to let go of the stress from the week. That being said, if you put yourself or others in danger, that’s another story.
“If there is ever thoughts of harming yourself or others, engaging in risky behavior like over-drinking or sex with risky partners—things like that could indicate you need help,” Dr. Adams says. It could also be particularly concerning if this kind of behavior was out of character for you before.
7. You just want to go to therapy
This sounds odd, but honestly, if you just have this gut feeling something’s off and you need help, get help. “I always tell students, if you’re sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, go ahead and come in,” Dr. Adams says.
Forget about stigmas or being embarrassed or ashamed or anything else that’s causing you to hesitate to go to a therapist when you honestly think you need it. “You can be assured all your information is doing to be kept confidential,” Dr. Adams says. “We’re here to help, so we’re not here to embarrass students or make them feel weird about their feelings or problems.”
Dr. Durvasula says therapy is as private as you want it to be. “There is a tremendous amount of stigma around mental illness or even simply being in therapy,” Dr. Durvasula says. “Ultimately, it is your decision whether you share with anyone that you are in therapy.”
It’s important to know that if you’re going to develop mental health problems, college is a likely time to do it. “For all mental health issues, from about 15-25 is what we call the age of onset for mental illness, so it’s not uncommon for someone to experience their first bout at this age,” Dr. Adams says. It’s crucial for your happiness that you address any mental health problems while you have your university's resources and are still finding yourself. If any of these signs stick out to you, well, sit back in that lounger and open up, buttercup.