Being a student should be a happy and exciting time. Heading off to college provides an opportunity to broaden your interests, meet new people, and try new things.
But for many young people, college can be a time of stress, high anxiety, and other mental health challenges. 39% of students in college struggle with poor mental health, and 67% of them don’t seek treatment.
There can be several reasons students don’t choose to seek support for mental health challenges, including concerns about how they’ll be perceived and worries about the cost.
In this article, we’ve provided 12 free resources you can use if you are struggling with your mental health, plus eight strategies to support your mental wellness.
To go directly to the section you’re interested in, click on the links below:
- What challenges mental wellness in students?
- What are some common mental health disorders?
- What are the symptoms of poor mental health?
- Free professional support resources
- Strategies to manage debt
- Self-care strategies to improve your mental wellness
What challenges mental wellness in students?
There are several reasons why students may struggle with poor mental health during their time at college. Stress from different sources can add up and make prioritizing mental wellness difficult. Some of these sources of stress include:
- Academic pressure. Going to college can be an exciting time of growth. It’s a time to learn something new from renowned academic professionals. However, with that comes a significant amount of academic stress.
Grappling with new and challenging topics, plus a relentless schedule of tests, assignments, and exams, can feel overwhelming. And, surrounded by other bright young minds, students can feel the pressure to keep up with peers and may worry about making the grade.
- Financial burden. The cost of yearly college tuition can come as a shock to students and their parents. The average ‘sticker price’ for tuition at a private college was over $38,000 for 2021-22.
This figure was lower for public schools, but even in-state, public colleges cost over $10,000. On top of tuition costs, students are also responsible for their housing, food, and other living costs. While students can often access significant levels of financial support, these costs can still weigh heavily on their shoulders.
- Struggling with social relationships. For many students, heading off to college means leaving behind long-established friendships and rebuilding their social network from scratch. This can feel difficult for some students, especially those who are shy or have additional needs.
The desire to impress new friends can also result in some students engaging in more risky behaviors to fit in. Setting appropriate personal boundaries is essential for emotional wellness, and compromising those for new friends can leave students more anxious and insecure.
- Changes from routine. Like our personal boundaries, routines and norms that we set for ourselves can make us feel more secure and confident. We understand what we’re going to face each day and how to tackle it.
Personal routines often include the things we love and include making time for self-care activities that keep us well. Starting college can see those schedules significantly disrupted, which can lead students to feel out of control or overwhelmed.
- Isolation from friends/family. Heading off to college leaves students without the comfort blanket of friends and family.
The difficulty of other challenges, such as academic pressure and fitting in socially, is heightened without the easily-accessible support one normally gets at home. For many students, this may be the first time they have lived away from home, and it’s yet another skill they have to master.
- Less self-care. Changes to routine, a desire to make new friends, and attempting to keep up with a range of new academic and social responsibilities, can leave students with less time for self-care.
More parties and less sleep can cause fatigue and exacerbate overwhelming feelings. Many students will also be living on a tight food budget, which may mean their access to adequate nutrition will be lower. Poor nutrition can have a significant impact on mental well-being and may actually cause low moods.
What are some common mental health disorders?
There are several common mental health disorders that students may experience. The range of severity is large, from mild stress through to mental illness and suicidal ideation.
- Stress. Stress is a physical and emotional reaction caused by an external trigger. Stress is normal, and much of the time, the body can respond effectively to it.
For example, when we exercise, we stress the body and, over time, the body’s response to that stress improves athletic performance.
However, high stress levels over a prolonged period tax the body’s ability to respond appropriately and negatively impact the body and mind.
- Anxiety. Like stress, anxiety is a physical or mental reaction to the external environment. Anxiety occurs when we perceive a situation to be stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar.
Anxiety can also be felt in anticipation of an event and is often experienced as unease or a sense of foreboding or dread.
There are three main categories of anxiety-related disorders: anxiety disorders (characterized by excessive fear), obsessive-compulsive disorders, and trauma-related disorders.
- Depression. Depression is a relatively common but serious mood disorder. Data from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed 19.4 million Americans had suffered a depressive episode that year.
Depression can cause feelings of sadness and a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may affect how you feel, think, and act.
The National Institute of Mental Health classifies four different types of depression: persistent depressive disorder, postpartum depression, psychotic depression, and seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder is characterized by a low mood during the winter months and generally improves during the spring and summer.
- Eating disorders. Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses marked by significant disturbances to normal eating behaviors.
Common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder.
- OCD tendencies. Classified as a subset of anxiety-related disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders are characterized by irrational or intrusive thoughts, fears, or worries. These thoughts are termed obsessions.
A person suffering from OCD tries to manage these obsessions by creating repetitive and often extensive rituals.
Common obsessions may include fixation with dirt, germs, or the need to have things organized or completed in a specific order. They may also include disturbing thoughts about violence or hurting others.
- Suicidal thoughts. Suicide is the second most common cause of death in college-aged individuals in the United States. In a recent study, 20% of students said they had suicidal thoughts, and 9% shared that they had attempted suicide.
Stress is strongly associated with suicidal thoughts, highlighting the importance of helping students manage their stress and anxiety levels. The most vulnerable students include those identifying as bisexual and transgender.
What are the symptoms of poor mental health?
How young adults are affected by mental health disorders and the symptoms they experience may differ significantly from person to person.
But, while the symptoms of poor mental health may look different for everyone, several are relatively common across all mental health challenges.
Stress and anxiety can cause a number of different physical symptoms, including tight muscles, headaches, and gut disturbances.
One study found that as people experienced higher stress levels, their headaches became more frequent. Tight muscles in the neck and shoulders can also exacerbate headaches.
High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can lead to adrenal fatigue, resulting in tiredness, digestive problems, and pain and inflammation in the joints.
Stress can also cause you to clench your jaw and grind your teeth, which can lead to tooth pain.
A common symptom of mental health disorders is disrupted sleep. Research shows that work stress can cause problems with both getting to sleep and staying asleep.
Sometimes stress and anxiety can cause insomnia, which according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, means “persistent difficulty with sleep initiation, duration, consolidation, or quality.”
Many mental health disorders are characterized by episodes of low mood, including feelings of sadness, overwhelm, or tearfulness.
You may also experience feelings of apathy, including a loss of desire to participate in even simple activities. Problems with memory and concentration or an inability to think logically can also be a symptom.
As well as low mood, other feelings may also be heightened by stress. Any rapid or dramatic changes in emotions can be a sign of decreasing mental health.
Feeling irritable or irritated and struggling to contain anger are emotions commonly associated with mental health challenges.
You may be short-tempered and snap at others without warning. Or you may feel less able to control your fluctuating emotions or find appropriate ways to moderate them.
Students who are experiencing a mental health challenge may well begin to socially isolate themselves.
This can be for many reasons, including not wanting their peers or faculty to notice anything is wrong and feeling too tired or unwell to join social occasions. They may begin to skip classes, sports training sessions, or other commitments.
Caring less about appearance
Struggling with negative emotions can lead students to care less about their appearance or personal hygiene.
They may begin to think, “what’s the point?” or may feel so overwhelmed by all the other things they have to juggle that even basic self-care falls to the bottom of their list.
Students battling mental health disorders may begin to self-medicate with food, drugs, or alcohol to help manage their emotions.
Emerging research shows that periods of high stress actually increase the food “wanting” trigger, causing patterns of over-eating.
For students struggling with anxiety or depression, the perception that their peers encourage alcohol consumption can lead to more drinks being consumed more frequently.
Free professional support resources
If you’re struggling with your mental health, speaking with your doctor or a mental health professional is the recommended course of action. However, sometimes visiting your doctor is financially difficult, or you might feel unsure of what to say.
These free mental health resources can provide support to improve your mental wellness and help you better understand what you might be experiencing. This ensures that you’ll be more informed when you speak with a doctor.
1. School services
If you’re worried about your studies and feel comfortable talking with your professor, they should be the first person you turn to.
They can help you manage your workload and have the ability to delay assignment deadlines to help you get back on track. Your academic advisor can also be a source of support.
Faculty staff will keep what you share in confidence, which means they won’t tell anyone else about it unless it would be detrimental to your physical or mental health.
Your school may also have centralized support services, which you can access if you’re struggling with any aspect of your mental health care, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or suicidal thoughts.
There may be specialist support groups where you can go to share your worries within a peer community.
Individual schools or departments may also host listening sessions or develop advocacy groups to help students take action on issues that are contributing to their anxiety.
2. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of crisis centers. Its mission is “to improve crisis services and advance suicide prevention by empowering individuals, advancing professional best practices, and building awareness.”
You can visit the center in your local area for free and confidential emotional support if you’re struggling with poor mental health or having suicidal thoughts.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline centers are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week across the United States. Its website has free mental health resources, and it also runs Lifeline Chat, a service that lets you connect with a counselor via web chat.
You can call them at 1-800-273-8255
3. Crisis Text Line
The Crisis Text Line is available to anyone in crisis. Whatever mental health challenge you’re facing, whether it’s anxiety, depression, self-harm, or eating disorders, they will work to support you.
There are resources available on their website, and you can text them 24/7. You can also reach a Crisis Counselor via Facebook, WhatsApp, and webchat. Plus, all their resources are available in Spanish.
Text HOME to 741741 for advice and support
4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It provides data, reports, publications, and public health messages on its website.
It also offers several support services. You can find a substance abuse treatment facility or behavioral health treatment services local to you.
The administration also runs a 24-hour free helpline that offers confidential treatment referrals and guidance about mental and/or substance use disorders, prevention, and recovery. The helpline is available in both English and Spanish.
Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) 24 hours a day for treatment referral and support
5. YMCA Behavioral and Mental Health Services
Your local YMCA can be a significant source of support if you’re struggling with mental health.
YMCA Counseling & Social Services are unique to each location, but they commonly support mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, and offer help if you’re struggling with substance abuse.
It usually offers a variety of programs, both in-person and via telehealth service, through its network of licensed counselors. You don’t have to be a Y member to access the service.
There can be fees associated with YMCA counseling services, which are priced on a financial needs-based sliding scale. This means if you can’t afford the payments, you may be able to access this help for free.
Find your local YMCA
6. The JED Foundation
The JED Foundation acts to empower young people by “building resiliency and life skills, promoting social connectedness, and encouraging help-seeking and help-giving behaviors through our nationally recognized programs, digital channels, and partnerships, as well as through the media.”
The JED Foundation works directly with colleges and universities to help them establish systems and processes that ensure students get the support they need.
The JED Foundation website has a dedicated Mental Health Resource Center, which students can access if they are struggling with their own mental health or if they are worried about a friend’s mental wellness.
This contains information about various mental health challenges and also a helpful symptom checker to ensure students get targeted help for their specific needs.
7. Anxiety and Depression Association of America
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) was established 40 years ago. It’s an international nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the “prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and co-occurring disorders through education, practice, and research.”
The association has more than 1,300 professional mental health members who contribute blog posts, host webinars, and review website content.
Its website has a trove of information about anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. This includes symptoms, causes, and advice on effective treatments. You can also use its website to find a therapist or a telemental health provider.
The ADAA offers a free monthly newsletter to its public community with news, personal stories, and expert resources. They also run a free peer-to-peer support community, which acts as a safe space to share your experience. English and Spanish communities are available.
Find an ADAA support group
8. American Psychiatric Association
The American Psychiatric Association is one of the leading psychiatric organizations in the world, with nearly 40,000 members practicing in over 100 countries.
Members are involved in psychiatric practice, research, advocacy, and academia, and the APA offers resources and information about a comprehensive list of mental health disorders.
Targeted to both patients and their families, you can learn about symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options. Frequently asked questions are available with answers written by leading psychiatrists, plus personal stories from people living with mental illness.
You can also use the site to find a psychiatrist in your area if you’re ready and able to access paid professional support.
9. National Institute of Mental Health
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is the lead federal agency for research on mental disorders.
The NIMH website provides expert-reviewed information on various mental health topics as well as brochures and fact sheets. The website is mobile and print-friendly, and you can order printed publications for free in both English and Spanish.
NIMH also runs clinical trials to determine if new treatments are safe and effective in people.
10. Local psychology training clinic
Psychology training clinics are staffed by grad students who are still in training. Often located close to or on a University campus, they can be a free or low-cost option for therapy sessions.
While the grad student will conduct the sessions, they are supervised at all times by a licensed psychologist.
To find your nearest clinic, visit the Association of Psychology Training Clinics.
11. Affordable therapists through Open Path
While not a free resource, affordable therapy options can be sourced through Open Path. Open Path is a nonprofit established to help connect people in need with lower-cost, high-quality psychotherapy services.
Through OpenPath, you pay a one-off lifetime membership fee of $59. This fee gives you access to a large network of highly-qualified mental health professionals providing affordable therapy sessions.
Sessions can be conducted both in-office and online and cost in the neighborhood of $30–$60 per appointment.
PsychCentral is an independent website offering mental health information and news. It provides easy-to-digest resources on a wide variety of mental health topics.
It also provides quizzes where you can answer questions to help determine whether you have the symptoms associated with specific disorders.
You can sign up for PsychCentral’s free weekly newsletter for evidence-based guidance, up-to-date resources, and first-hand accounts and management strategies from people struggling with their mental health.
Mental health professionals review all the content on the PsychCentral site.
Strategies to manage debt
Many students worry about their financial situation during college.
During these times, you can try to take advantage of student discounts that local businesses may offer as a way to save money.
But if student debt or other financial concerns are a significant contributor to your poor mental health, you can try these strategies:
Call your lender. If you have any financial concerns, the first thing you should always do is call your lender. It’s important to be upfront with them if you’re struggling, as they may have ways to help you manage your repayments better.
Consider refinancing your loan. If your monthly loan repayments are causing you stress and anxiety and your lender can’t help, it might be worth looking at alternative financing options. Refinancing at a lower interest rate can reduce your monthly repayments and, with the right provider, may even decrease the term of your repayment.
Sign-up for an income-based payment plan. Defaulting on your student loan can have a serious impact on your financial future, so finding a repayment plan that you can afford to pay on time every month is critical.
If you have a federal loan and meet certain criteria, you might be eligible for an income-based payment plan. Also known as an income-driven repayment plan or IDR, these loans set your monthly payment as a percentage of your income. If you’re early in your career and your earnings are low, this may be only a small monthly commitment.
- Pause payments. If something changes in your financial situation that creates a temporary cash-flow problem, it might be worth seeing if you can pause your payments. Taking a short payment break while you review your finances may offer some breathing room until things improve.
If your debt feels overwhelming or you have unsustainable borrowing habits, it might be worth speaking to Debtors Anonymous.
Debtors Anonymous is a nonprofit with the aim of giving hope to people struggling with debt. Its website offers a number of written resources, and you can also attend face-to-face programs.
Find your local Debtors Anonymous meeting
Self-care strategies to improve your mental wellness
1. Speak to friends and family
If you’re suffering from poor mental health, you may feel lonely. Opening up to others who care about you can help you realize you’re not alone and provide a valuable source of support as you work to improve your mental well-being.
When you’re struggling with a mental health disorder, your problems can feel overwhelming. Sharing your worries and anxieties with friends or family can help you regain some perspective and may offer a different way to look at the issue.
Many of the organizations in this article also offer information for the loved ones of people who are struggling with mental health challenges, so if you don’t know how to explain how you feel, you can signpost them to those resources.
2. Eat a healthy diet
What you eat can have a significant impact on your mental health as well as your overall well-being.
For example, leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, and chard, have high levels of the micronutrient, magnesium. Supplementation with magnesium has been shown to reduce mild anxiety symptoms, so eating foods rich in magnesium could have the same effect.
Kale and spinach are also full of vitamin C, as are broccoli, bell peppers, and kiwis. Vitamin C deficiency has been linked to higher stress levels, and several studies show that vitamin C supplementation has an antidepressant effect that can boost your mood.
Foods containing tryptophan, such as lean chicken or turkey, firm tofu, squash, and pumpkin seeds, can also positively affect your emotional well-being. Tryptophan is important for the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood.
Following a healthy diet can make a significant difference in how you feel.
Try to include:
- A variety of fruits and vegetables of different colors
- Whole grains, such as rice, oats, and wholewheat pasta
- High-quality proteins, such as lean meat, fish, beans, lentils, and tofu
- Healthy fats, such as nuts, seeds, and avocados
3. Focus on good sleep hygiene
Stress and anxiety can seriously impact our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. In turn, not getting enough quality sleep can heighten feelings of anxiety and depression.
In people already suffering from depression, lack of sleep can increase suicidal behaviors. Sleep disturbances can also lead to reduced academic performance and an elevated risk of substance abuse. So, it’s vital to prioritize good sleep habits to give yourself the best chance of quality sleep.
Try and minimize exposure to light in the hour leading up to bed. This includes both bright white light and blue light from televisions, computer screens, and mobile devices.
Blue light interferes with melatonin production, a hormone crucial for good sleep. Use warm-toned, low-light bulbs and candles as you prepare for bed and put your devices in night-time mode if you have it.
Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Blackout blinds can help, as can sleep masks and earplugs. One study of college students suffering from poor sleep found that inhaling the scent of lavender oil before bed improved sleep quality.
4. Take regular exercise
Exercise is a proven stress reliever. Numerous studies have shown it to be effective at reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Physical activity raises your endorphin levels which boosts your overall mood and sense of well-being.
Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous for you to reap the mental health benefits. Psychologists have found that a 10-minute walk can be as effective as a 45-minute workout for managing depression and anxiety.
Walking outside may just be the best exercise of all, as being in green spaces and connecting to nature can also positively affect well-being.
Many Universities have sports teams you can join if you want to exercise in a team environment or a gym if you prefer to workout solo.
If those options feel too challenging, virtual workouts can be done in the privacy of your own room. When it comes to exercise, doing anything that you enjoy and keeps you moving is beneficial.
5. Learn workload management techniques
If academic pressure feels overwhelming and you don’t know how to manage your work commitments, using prioritization methods or following productivity tips may help.
Productivity systems work to support you in getting things done in the most efficient manner. Some common techniques include:
Gettings Things Done. This method involves dumping out everything you have to get done onto a piece of paper and then prioritizing work into areas of focus depending on when it needs to be done and how important it is.
The Daily Trifecta. This technique suggests you write down three key tasks each night that you’ll prioritize the next day. This stops you from feeling overwhelmed by a never-ending to-do list.
Eat That Frog. The principle behind this system is tackling your most challenging task first thing in the morning. This stops you from wasting time putting it off during the day and ensures that your most difficult task is prioritized before your energy has a chance to dip.
Pomodoro Technique. This technique can be especially helpful if your mental health interferes with your ability to concentrate. It encourages you to focus on a single task and work on it in short intervals of 25 minutes at a time. After 25 minutes, you take a break for 5 minutes, then refocus and go again. After three cycles or a total of 90 minutes, you take a longer break.
6. Prioritize social connection
Poor mental health can lead to feelings of isolation. People struggling with their mental health may both physically and mentally withdraw from social interactions.
This is a significant challenge because social connection is strongly associated with resilience and improved mental well-being.
Several of the support organizations mentioned above have a community component, whether it’s attending a group in person or connecting through social media. Speaking to others who are feeling the same way can make you feel less alone.
Finding social activities you enjoy can also boost your emotional well-being, whether it’s a dance class, craft club, or book group.
7. Reduce electronics use
Electronics use is associated with poor mental health. As well as blue light interfering with your body’s natural rhythms, the use of electronics may also increase isolation if used to replace social activities and human connection.
Social media could also add to stress and anxiety in young people as they compare themselves with their peers and celebrity influencers. It also leaves them vulnerable to cyberbullying, which 59% of teens have experienced.
If electronics use is negatively impacting your mental health, consider taking a tech break. Or, remove apps that distract you or cause low self-esteem and replace them with more positive options, such as apps that help you focus on your physical and mental well-being.
And don’t forget to turn your mobile devices off or into night mode as you prepare for sleep.
8. Practice mindfulness
The purpose of mindfulness is to bring your attention to the present moment. Bringing your focus to the here and now stops you from analyzing past actions or worrying about the future.
Mindfulness-based meditation used alone or alongside other therapies was found to have positive and lasting effects on depression.
Getting started with meditation can be as simple as sitting somewhere comfortable for a few minutes and concentrating on your breathing.
You don’t have to empty your mind, and it’s natural that thoughts will come and go. Just notice them as if you were an interested outside observer, then let them pass.
There are hundreds of apps that can help you with your meditation practice. Two of the most well-known are Calm and Headspace. Both offer free trials.
Outside of meditation, breathing techniques (like box breathing and alternate nostril breathing), as well as journaling, can be helpful mindfulness practices that will support your mental well-being.
Seek support for poor mental health
For many students, their college years will be a fun-filled time of exciting new opportunities. But, a significant number of students will struggle with their mental health during this time. And make no mistake about it, mental health issues can be a disability.
There are several reasons for poor mental health, and the symptoms can vary between individuals. You should always seek support for any mental health issue that you’re facing, and your doctor, school support services, friends, and family can all play a role in helping you manage symptoms.
While this article is not a substitute for professional advice, it does offer a list of free mental health and wellness resources that may help you if you’re struggling.
As well as professional support, self-care practices can also increase your resilience and help optimize your mental wellness.