Mental Health in College: Why It's Important and What You Can Do

Last updated: Apr 7, 2020

The brain deserves our attention. It may only weigh about three pounds, but it’s been called the most complex object in the universe. The fact that you are able to read these words at all is thanks to your brain, with its network of 86 billion neurons. It’s so intricate, we still don’t fully understand how it all works. And yet, sometimes we feel ashamed when this organ’s complicated functioning misfires. We mistakenly think that nobody else gets depressed, anxious, or sad, and we ignore our symptoms instead of telling anyone how we feel.

The reality is, your brain can get sick just like any other part of your body. There’s no shame in that. And if you’ve been feeling mentally under-the-weather, you’re not alone: So many young adults experience mental health issues, it’s been called an “epidemic.” The good news is there are many resources that can help you feel better. We’ll help you find them.  

Keep reading to understand why it’s important to maintain your mental health in college and what you can do about it.

Why It’s Important to Prioritize Your Mental Health in College

For a successful college life, it’s essential to prioritize your mental wellness:

  • You have access to a huge support system. At schools like the University of South Florida, you can meet with counselors, nutritionists, wellness coaches, fitness experts, peer advisors, and more — all for free or minimal costs. Your four-year education is about more than getting good grades: It’s designed to teach you how to care for your overall well-being. If you aren’t taking advantage of these resources, you’re not making the most of your college experience.
  • If you’re a college student, you are at risk for mental ailments. A majority of students felt “very sad” and more than 60 percent “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past year, according to a 2018 report. And more than a third of freshman around the world suffer from symptoms consistent with mental health disorders. Because these illnesses are so common, it’s important you know how to identify, prevent, and treat them.

How to Recognize Signs You Need to Talk to Someone

To take care of your mental health, you need to know the symptoms of common illnesses, such as anxiety or depression, that affect college students. (Not sure whether you are experiencing a mental health issue? You can always take a free, anonymous online quiz.)

Mental health impacts every area of your life. It includes “how you act, feel, and think in different situations,” according to a WebMD article. As the article notes, having mental health problems does not mean you are crazy. Going to see a counselor or coach is just like checking in with your primary care doctor.

You don’t even need to have a mental health issue to seek advice from a therapist. Here are some of the reasons people go to counseling:

  • You’ve experienced a major life event. (FYI: Pretty much all college students fall into this category because you’re going through a big transitional period.)
  • You’re suffering from a tragedy or trauma, such as a diagnosis of chronic illness, the loss of a family member, or the death of a beloved pet.
  • You have been abused, harassed, or made to feel unsafe.
  • You are having trouble with daily life tasks (like eating, sleeping, or personal hygiene).
  • You have great difficulty concentrating in class and doing homework.
  • You experience mood swings or negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, anger, or hopelessness. (It's okay to sometimes have negative feelings, but if these emotions are frequent, interfering with your life, or causing you distress, you should seek support.)
  • You find yourself wanting to use more alcohol/drugs.
  • You’re withdrawing from friends or activities your previously enjoyed.
  • You’re having trouble with your relationship or have just experienced a break-up.
  • You need a safe, affirming person who will support your gender identity or sexual orientation.
  • You’d really like to talk to someone about how you feel.

If you didn’t find your current life experience listed here, that doesn’t make it unimportant. People go to counselors for all kinds of reasons. Give yourself permission to seek help.

What You Can Do to Prioritize Your Mental Health

Meet with a Counselor

If the above section didn’t convince you already, we’re going to try one more time: Go see a counselor. More than 60 percent of students who attended on-campus counseling felt that it “helped them remain in school” and improved “their academic performance,” according to an American Psychological Association survey.

Many schools offer comprehensive mental health services, including group and individual counseling and wellness coaching. You can also try online therapy.

Make a “First-Aid Kit” for Your Brain

You’ve probably got one of those plastic first-aid kits in your dorm room, packed with antibiotic ointment, bandages (and whatever else your mother thought you’d never survive college without). This is the same thing, except for your brain: A list of tools you can access if you feel mentally unwell. For example:

  • Compile a list of your campus’ wellness services.
  • Meet with an on-campus peer mentor or wellness coach and put their numbers in your “favorite” phone contacts.
  • Create an inventory of healthy-brain tools (mindfulness apps, guided relaxation exercises, on-campus yoga classes).

Basically, your first-aid kit is a plan for what to do (and who to call) if you start feeling blue. Having a detailed plan is especially important if you are entering college with a diagnosed mental illness; you’ll need to continue any ongoing treatments, including medication or counseling sessions, to avoid relapsing.

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Eat Your Veggies

Your mind is healthier when the rest of your body is, too. When you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, it helps reduce inflammation in your body (and inflammation is linked to depression).

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Start an Exercise Routine

Exercise can boost your mood and increase your ability to think clearly. Experts recommend a 45-minute session three to five times a week; cycling, team sports, and aerobic/gym activities are said to be especially beneficial.

To discover your ideal exercise regimen, check out your campus recreation center, which may offer intramural sports, group fitness classes, or outdoor excursions (like Bioluminescent Kayaking).

Get Enough Sleep

Just three days of poor sleep can cause feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress, according to one experiment. Follow these tips for better rest:

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Hang Out with Friends

Spending time with friends releases feel-good hormones and even makes life look less scary — literally. In one study, researchers outfitted students with heavy backpacks and asked them to stand at the bottom of a hill with a 26-degree incline. Here are the results, as summarized by The New York Times:

“When a student stood alone, he or she tended to guess that the hill was very steep. But when they stood next to a friend, the hill didn’t look as daunting. Overall, students in pairs consistently gave lower estimates of the hill’s incline compared with students who were alone. And the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.”

Maybe the mountain you’re facing right now is your own mental health. If so, don’t hesitate to confide in a friend or join an on-campus support group.

Put Happiness on Your To-Do List

Do what you love. We often follow that mantra for big decisions (like choosing a college major), but forget to make it part of our daily routine. But it’s crucial to pencil in your favorite activity alongside homework and chores. People who make time for positive experiences enjoy better mental health:

One caveat: Avoid scrolling through social media during this relaxation time. Although it’s easy to lose hours to Instagram, heavy social media use will only make your mood worse. As this professor of psychology puts it, “All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.”

Practice Positive Thinking

We tend to group ourselves into optimists and pessimists, but the reality is that anyone can learn to be more optimistic: It’s a habit, like exercising or brushing your teeth. (Here’s how MayoClinic recommends you reframe negative self-talk.)

Pro tip: Positive thinking is contagious, so as you build your support system, choose people who look on the sunny side of life. And for more in-depth training on changing how you think, USF students can access this online library of self-help resources.

Start Meditating

The inventor of the meditation app Headspace explains the benefits of 10 minutes of mindfulness a day: It’s a way to care for your most “valuable and precious resource,” the brain. This simple but powerful technique — which involves being present in the moment — can actually make you a more positive person. Experienced meditators have increased activity in the part of their brain that is linked to happiness.

Download a meditation app or try this excellent exercise from the New York Times (you’ll be pleased to hear that it involves eating chocolate.)

Let Someone Help You

Are you reading this article because you feel distressed? If so, know that you are not alone.

  • Reach out to a crisis center.
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Contact the USF Health and Wellness Center for support (if you are a current student).
  • Call the USF Counseling Center’s 24-hour emergency line: 813-974-2831.. If you are not a current student, give us a call anyway. We can connect you with resources to assist you.

Whatever you are experiencing, help is ready.