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Stress, anxiety, and depression are common among college students.

College students face many new challenges.

Often for the first time, they’re living away from their families and communities. They’re suddenly presented with new surroundings, social situations, and a heavy academic workload.

Very often these new challenges can feel overwhelming, leading to depression or anxiety. Sometimes this extra pressure can worsen a previously existing condition or trigger its onset.

Many college students experience mental health challenges, two of the most common of these being anxiety and depression.

Often, the symptoms are short-term and can be directly linked to the challenges of being a new student, such as feelings of loneliness. Sometimes it can take a semester or two for students to develop friendships. This transition time may temporarily affect many students’ mental health as a 2012 study found that social support is one of the most important factors for promoting well-being in college students.

Once students begin gaining a sense of belonging at school, many will find their anxiety and depression symptoms begin subsiding as well. Other students, however, may find their symptoms to be the start of a mental health disorder.

In fact, early adulthood is when many mental health disorders first appear. A 2014 study revealed that by age 25, 75% of those who will develop a mental health disorder have already had their first onset.

The distress that comes with anxiety and depression can impact many aspects of a student’s life.

Research from 2021 revealed that untreated mental health is linked to alcohol and substance misuse, relationship instability, lower self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts.

If you’re considering self-harm or suicide, you’re not alone

You can access free support right away with these resources:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call the Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for English or 888-628-9454 for Spanish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • The Crisis Text Line. Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
  • The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? Call 866-488-7386, text “START” to 678678, or chat online 24/7.
  • Veterans Crisis Line. Call 800-273-8255, text 838255, or chat online 24/7.
  • Deaf Crisis Line. Call 321-800-3323, text “HAND” to 839863, or visit their website.
  • Befrienders Worldwide. This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.

How common is anxiety among college students?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders, affecting about 11.9% of college students. Many of these disorders show their first symptoms during adolescence or early adulthood.

Some of the most common anxiety disorders include:

While social anxiety often begins in childhood or adolescence (usually around ages 7-14), the other anxiety disorders may first appear or get triggered during the stressful college years.

But even among students who aren’t diagnosed with a specific anxiety disorder, many are vulnerable to high levels of anxiety in college.

A 2018 survey found that 63% of college students in the United States reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year. About 23% reported being diagnosed or treated by a mental health professional in the past year.

Anxiety has spiked in college students in recent years. A small 2020 study found that 71% of college students had increased stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How common is depression in college students?

Depression occurs in about 7-9% of college students, but it can begin much earlier in life. In fact, nearly half of all depression cases have their first onset by age 18.

Suicide is also a major concern, as it’s the third leading cause of death among young adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A large 2015 survey found that among 8,155 students, 6.7% reported having suicidal thoughts, 1.6% reported having a suicide plan, and 0.5% had attempted suicide in the past year.

Are mental health problems increasing among students?

Mental health is a growing concern on college campuses across the United States. According to a 2018 study, more than 95% of directors at college counseling centers report that managing students’ mental health is a growing concern.

This study also revealed that mental health problems have increased significantly among college students in recent decades. The number of students entering college with a mental health disorder has increased as well.

While it’s not entirely clear what’s causing this trend, a 2018 study suggests that adolescents who spent more time on electronic devices (social media, smartphones, and gaming) and less time engaging in activities without electronics had decreased psychological well-being.

Symptoms of anxiety vary among individuals, but may include the following symptoms:

  • poor concentration
  • feelings of restlessness or being on edge
  • worry or nervousness
  • muscle tension
  • feeling fatigued or weak
  • sleep difficulties
  • feeling out of control
  • sense of impending doom
  • fast heart rate
  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • stomachaches or headaches
  • rapid breathing

Symptoms of depression may include:

  • persistent low mood
  • fatigue
  • feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, or pessimism
  • irritability
  • emotional numbness
  • loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • poor concentration and memory
  • moving or talking more slowly
  • feeling restless
  • insomnia or oversleeping
  • appetite or weight changes
  • aches and pains without a clear cause
  • thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempt

In the past couple decades, several studies conducted around the world (in both developed and developing countries) have shown that anxiety, depression, and stress are high among college students.

From social to academic stressors, not only do college students face many challenges, but many mental health disorders begin during this time.

A 2021 study suggests that these risk factors fall under six distinct categories:

  • psychological
  • academic
  • biological
  • lifestyle
  • social
  • financial

Within these categories, some of the most common risk factors include:

Most college-related psychological stress happens in the first year of college. Receiving the right treatment can make all the difference for students in both their academic success and overall well-being. However, currently, many students aren’t receiving the help they need.

A large online survey from 2011 found that only 36% of students experiencing a mental health problem had received treatment in the previous year.

Reasons for not seeking help include:

  • fear of stigma
  • not perceiving treatment as essential or urgent
  • lack of time
  • denial of symptoms
  • lack of adequate treatment options
  • financial struggles

Besides reaching out to a mental health professional, there are several things students can do to help cope with symptoms of anxiety and depression:

  • Try not to avoid your stressors. Whether you’re dealing with social anxiety or test anxiety, try to tackle the things that scare you most. Maybe this involves going to a party or getting started on your next big assignment. Getting started is often the hardest part, but once you get going, it often becomes easier and you gain self-confidence.
  • Practice self-care. Never underestimate the power of healthy eating, exercising, and getting enough sleep. When possible, try to spend time outside, make time with friends, and practice sleep hygiene. Limiting or avoiding alcohol or other substances can also help.
  • Seek out resources. Check to see if your campus has mental health services or mental health support groups. The Center for Online Education offers a large list of resources for college students seeking mental health support. You can also seek an outside mental health counselor.

If you’re a college student living with anxiety, depression, or both, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Most campuses have mental health counselors who can provide you with support.

Getting the right diagnosis and treatment can significantly increase your well-being and help you better cope with the everyday stressors of college life. Remember, college may be about gaining independence but you are not alone.