Jun 2, 2016 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Mental health issues are increasingly prevalent among contemporary college students. How much so? Three-quarters of all chronic illnesses start by the age of 24, according to figures from the US’s National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). Not only that, but 95 percent of college counseling center directors agree that psychological problems are on the rise on campus.

In response to these and other troubling statistics, a number of organizations -- both campus-run and student-led -- are emerging to help students gain access to the information they need to cope with mental health difficulties. While taking advantage of these resources can be a vital part of the journey to better mental health, these five tips can also help college students manage stress and overcome challenges to mental health.

1. Recognize the Signs
According to NAMI, 80 percent of students feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities and 50 percent have experienced anxiety so significant that it caused them to struggle in school. If you are experiencing increased worrying, difficulty concentrating, increased agitation, changes in eating and sleeping habits, tension, tight muscles or headaches, you may be suffering from stress.

While experiencing stress is to some degree part of learning to cope with the high academic expectations of college life, it can have far-reaching consequences when it starts to interfere with your ability to attend class, complete assignments on time, and other performance-related factors. In fact, in many cases particularly stressful times act as a “trigger” for mental health episodes, which is why recognizing the signs of stress can help mitigate their impact.

In addition to being aware of your own mental health, be aware of others’, as well. There are many ways to support a friend who is dealing with mental health problems. Even something as simple as expressing your concerns can go a long way.

2. Take Care of Your Body
While all-nighters and junk food binges may seem like they’re part of the typical college experience, they can also contribute to poor mental health. Factors like lack of exercise, poor diet, and insufficient sleep can exacerbate the impact of stress. In fact, researchers have linked all three with depression! The takeaway? Healthy lifestyle habits are an essentiall part of both physical and mental self-care.

3. Reach Out to Others
Feeling connected to others is an invaluable part of good mental health. Unfortunately, college students often feel isolated from friends and family members back home -- particularly when adjusting to new environments.

Luckily, there are many ways to meet friends with similar interests -- both on and around college campuses. From student organizations to club sports to spiritual groups, participating isn't just fun, it can also contribute to your emotional wellbeing. Additionally, social media makes it easier to stay in contact with far-off loved ones, as well.

But remember: quality trumps quantity when it comes to cultivating meaningful friendships. Having a healthy social life is not about having a large network of friends, but rather about having a handful of close friends.

4. Explore Relaxation Techniques
While college life is fast-paced, taking the time to relax your body and mind has been linked with both stress reduction and the alleviation of symptoms associated with mental health disorders. Breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and mindful meditation are all techniques aimed at helping you check in with your state of mind and stress levels.

Still not convinced? Check out this Ted Talk by mindfulness expert Andy Puddicombe to learn more about the “transformative power” of devoting just 10 minutes every day to being mindful and in the moment.

5. Take a Break
While having a routine is an important part of keeping up in college, the day-to-day drudgery of studying and classes can become stale. Give yourself a beneficial change of pace every now and then by building in time for new experiences. Take a walk in an unexplored park or area of the city, visit a new coffee shop, or head to your local farmer’s market. These rejuvenation activities and hundreds of others are a great way to refresh and restore.

One last thing to keep in mind? While these five tips promote better mental health, professional intervention is also an invaluable course of action. Unfortunately, a full 40 percent of students suffering from mental health issues don’t seek help. If you are feeling overwhelmed, check in with your campus health center to learn more about services available to you. Additionally, ULifeline is a comprehensive, confidential, online resource center comprising a breadth and depth of useful information on mental health for college students, including a self-evaluation tool and help hotline.


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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