A female college student slumps over a pile of books
Published On: June 3, 2020|Categories: Young Adults|

Beginning college is a major milestone in life. The experience can be met with excitement, fear, nervousness, joy and bittersweet feelings. College can take you out of your comfort zone, and whether you’re at university, doing online school, starting a trade program or commuting from home, new challenges and opportunities await.

College is fraught with exciting experiences, but each new experience can also invite stress. Change is hard, and learning to adapt to numerous changes at once can lead to mental health concerns. Tackling your coursework, navigating social interactions and growing in confidence are all bound to be a learning curve, sometimes with negative effects on your mental wellbeing.

It’s not uncommon for the stress and anxiety of starting college to bring mental health concerns to the surface. Here are the most common mental health issues in college students.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety among college students can take many different forms. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is the most well-known anxiety disorder. It causes people to worry excessively for vague or unidentifiable reasons. Social anxiety disorder triggers dread in social situations and is one of the most common manifestations of anxiety among college students.

Here are some other conditions that are classified as anxiety disorders.

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

All college students experience anxiety for periods of time. In fact, some feelings of nervousness can even be helpful (like how the fear of failing a test can spur you to study). However, those with an anxiety disorder have severe and consistent symptoms that interfere with their daily lives and may have trouble in college.


Students struggling with depression may experience a range of symptoms, including the following.

  • Low energy
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Constantly feeling sad, hopeless, and/or worthless
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Not feeling interested in activities you normally enjoy
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Thinking about death and/or suicide

Depending on the severity of depression among college students, individuals may have trouble being successful in school. Depression can lead a student to perform poorly in academics, self-isolate, skip classes and feel apathetic about coursework and a future career. Depression among college students can also cause conflict between roommates and peers.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders among college students are both some of the most frequently observed mental health concerns and some of the most dangerous. An eating disorder is a serious condition that revolves around an obsession with food, weight, appearance, and exercise. The main types of eating disorders are as follows.

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge eating disorder

Anorexia is characterized by restricted food intake and excessive exercise. Those struggling with bulimia may eat a large amount of food and then try to compensate through purging methods such as exercise, vomiting, or laxatives. And people with binge eating disorders have frequent episodes of binge eating where they consume a large amount of food and then feel guilty or depressed afterward.

A common misconception is that eating disorders among college students are a choice. In reality, they are a dangerous mental health conditions deserving treatment.

Substance Abuse and Addiction

Our culture places a big emphasis on partying and having fun in college. Unfortunately, this includes binge drinking and drug use on some campuses. Students may start abusing substances for many reasons.

  • Cope with stress
  • “Fit in” with their peers
  • Have “fun” at a party
  • Self-medicate a mental health disorder

When students abuse substances in order to cope with a mental health condition, they may be struggling with co-occurring disorders. Mental health issues in college students are often exacerbated by substance use.

Suicidal Thoughts

Although suicidal thoughts are not considered a mental health disorder, they can indicate an underlying disorder. Students may also have suicidal thoughts in response to overwhelming stress, traumatic events, and other negative experiences.

Many students are reluctant to talk about suicide because they fear stigma and judgment. It’s important to be aware of the signs that someone is suicidal.

  • Persistent low mood
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Withdrawing from friends and loved ones
  • Making preparations such as giving away possessions or saying goodbye to loved ones
  • Suddenly feeling happy after a period of depression
  • Researching or obtaining the means to commit suicide, for example, buying a gun or drugs
  • Talking about death or dying, or explicitly threatening suicide

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals ages 10 to 34. This makes it a very serious mental health problem among young adults.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), or 911 in an emergency.

Why Do These Disorders Start During College?

College comes with a lot of new experiences, difficult transitions and an unknown environment. The transition and stress of this period of life can act as a trigger for mental health issues in college students. Mental health disorders may be triggered by the following.

  • Moving away from home and living with roommates
  • Leaving behind family and friends
  • Making new friends
  • Juggling multiple classes and a heavier workload
  • Effectively managing time
  • Deciding what career to pursue

For students who are already at risk for a mental health disorder, these stressors can cause new or worsening symptoms.

How to Get Help for Mental Health Concerns in College

If you start experiencing mental health symptoms in college, you should reach out for help as soon as the symptoms appear. Leaving a mental health condition untreated can worsen its effects and disrupt your life.

Here are some ways to get help.

  • Contact your school’s counseling center and make an appointment with a therapist
  • Look for peer support groups or resources on campus
  • Talk to a trusted person on-campus such as a professor, friend, classmate or mentor
  • Contact a local community mental health clinic
  • Ask counseling services to provide a referral to a local therapist or treatment program

If you are attending school in Pennsylvania, consider working with The Light Program. We treat all types of mental health disorders in teens and adults. Although our treatment centers are located across eastern Pennsylvania, anyone living in the state can participate in our online therapy programs. Teletherapy is a great option for college students since you can access a session from your phone or computer and don’t have to travel to a treatment center.

Call us at (610) 644-6464 to learn more about our programs or schedule an appointment.

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