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July 12, 2022

College students are increasingly depressed and anxious – making a mental health checklist may help

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Just like health check-ups and vaccinations can protect a college student's physical health, a mental health checklist can protect emotional well-being.

Starting college – whether a student commutes or lives on campus – is a major life transition. As they adjust to new pressures and expectations without the support structures they had in high school, life can quickly get overwhelming. That's why experts say finding ways to protect their emotional well-being before school starts is so important.

Emotional well-being – how well people can accept and manage their emotions and cope with challenges – can affect one's ability to function on a daily basis and deal with big changes, like college life. Poor emotional well-being can increase the risk of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

In the spring, undergraduate students were more than likely to report their overall mental health as "poor" than "excellent" in a survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse. And an eight-year study of more than 350,000 students at nearly 400 campuses found that the mental health of college students continues to decline. More than 60% of college students met criteria for one or more mental health conditions during the 2020-21 school year. That marked a 50% increase from 2013. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a crisis that had already been growing. Mental health experts say college students suffer from increased rates of anxiety, depression and burnout. And while overall college students are more open to seeking help, many college counseling centers are not able to keep up with the demand.

Psychologists emphasize that students' mental health is just as important as their physical health when starting their college journeys. And just like health check-ups and vaccinations can protect a college student's physical health, a mental health checklist can protect emotional well-being.

Here are some ways that parents and their young adults can prepare for the fall semester:

• Connect with the school's counseling center before stepping on campus. Find out what services it provides, its hours and how referrals to off-campus therapists work. At some schools, the counseling center will start seeing students before the semester starts. This could be especially helpful to those who have a diagnosed mental health condition.

The Jed Foundation, a suicide prevention organization, recommends students ask whether a counselor is available 24 hours a day or if there are other after-hours emergency services available on campus. They also are encouraged to ask about accommodations offered through disability service for students with emotional disorders. And they should understand what type of insurance coverage they have.

• Students should find out what other types of support the school offers including tutoring, academic and peer advising and career services.

• Extracurricular activities on campus can help students feel connected to their new schools faster. Before they arrive, they should start making connections with the groups they are interested in joining.

"College students report that loneliness and isolation and feeling like they don't fit in — those kinds of emotions are very common and challenging in first year of college," John MacPhee, chief executive of The Jed Foundation, told The New York Times.

• Students should begin practicing self-care. It's best to make important lifestyle changes before the fall. That includes taking steps to get better sleep, eat a healthier diet and exercise. Parents should model and teach their teens about healthy coping skills to build their resilience. This includes practicing gratitude and mindfulness, being kind to oneself, giving oneself space to destress and seeking help when needed. Parents are encouraged to educate their children on the dangers of using alcohol and junk food as coping mechanisms.

• Students are urged not to ignore concerning symptoms or emotions. They should seek professional help if symptoms are severe enough to affect their concentration and ability to function.

• Mental health experts also emphasize that parents should start conversations about emotional well-being as early as possible with their soon-to-be college students. Many teens need encouragement to open up about their concerns or feelings.

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