We recently asked members of the BuzzFeed Community and a few mental health experts to share the best ways to take care of yourself in college.
Whether you’re dealing with issues like depression or anxiety or just want to protect yourself against the overwhelming thing that is college life, here is everything you need to know about taking care of your mental health on campus.
And quick heads-up: These tips are great places to start thinking about and taking care of your mental health. But they are by no means an all-encompassing guide to handling depression, anxiety, or other disorders in college. We’ll be tackling each of those in more detail in the future and will update this post with the links when they’re up.
1. First things first, recognize that your mental health MATTERS.
“It sounds so obvious and kind of dumb, but I most definitely put my grades and my social calendar ahead of my mental health in high school and the first year of college. Recognize that it requires working on, too.”
—Bianca Ko, via Facebook
2. Give yourself time to make friends (and don’t feel bad if it doesn’t happen right away).
It’s easy to look around and feel like you’re the only one on campus who hasn’t found your people yet, but that’s most likely not true at all. Research shows that the most significant emotional struggle the majority of students face — especially their freshman year — is loneliness, Nance Roy, Ed.D., clinical director of The Jed Foundation and assistant clinical professor at the Yale School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry, tells BuzzFeed Life.
“You’re not alone in feeling lonely,” says Roy. “If you’re feeling depressed, remind yourself that it’s not just you — it’s a very common struggle for most students.”
3. Alter your ideas of what it means to be successful, because college is a LOT different than high school.
After working your ass off to stand out from your high school classmates by stocking up on APs, extracurriculars, an awesome GPA, etc., it’s going to be a culture shock to get to college and find yourself surrounded by people who are just as awesome as you. But don’t let that make you feel inadequate.
“Now that you’ve gotten into college, it’s time to give yourself some room to breathe and enjoy the freedom to identify the things you might begin to have a passion for,” says Roy. “Don’t worry about getting the highest grade in class or being the first one to raise your hand when a question is asked. You’ve made it to the school you wanted to get to, now you can concentrate on what you’re passionate about.”
4. Understand that depression and anxiety are very common on college campuses.
More and more, students are arriving on campus with preexisting mental health conditions, says Roy, and even if they don’t, the challenges of college can lead to struggles with depression and anxiety for many. You’re suddenly solely responsible for making sure you’re sleeping well, eating right, and making sure your life doesn’t implode. Oh, and starting actual COLLEGE. It’s incredibly overwhelming and stressful.
Just because mental health and emotional issues are common on campus, though, doesn’t mean you should have to suffer through it — it just means actively looking out for your mental health is all the more important, says Roy.
5. Do not compare your life to what everyone else is posting on Facebook or Instagram.
Obsessing over other people’s ~amazing college experiences~ on social media when you’re feeling down is one of the first habits you should cut if you’re experiencing depressive symptoms. “For someone who may be feeling inadequate or stressed, to constantly be seeing everyone else on campus thriving — even if that’s not true and that’s just what they’re showing on social media — can compound feelings of isolation and loneliness,” says Roy.
Remember: Social media is where people only post the good parts of their lives. Chances are, half those people are sitting alone in the room by themselves feeling just as lonely as you as they upload those pictures, says Roy.
6. Find a place that is only yours.
“The thing about college is you feel like you’re NEVER ALONE. You’re around other people in your classes, in your dorm, at meals, in communal bathrooms. When you’re always surrounded like that, you wind up internalizing a lot of negative emotion that you don’t want to show around other people. There’s nothing more exhausting than not being able to express your emotions. So my advice would be to find a place where you can go to be alone and let that kind of thing out. Personally, I was a big fan of the shower cry.”
—Margo Taggart, via Facebook
7. Remind yourself often that NO ONE has their shit together, even if you feel like you’re the only one floundering.
“I wish I knew that it’s okay to feel stressed, anxious, nervous, or upset about something. A lot of people my freshman year seemed like their lives were put together and it made me feel like the odd one out for being stressed and unsure about my future. Just because someone else has it all figured out doesn’t mean you need to as well.”
—Gabriella Salazar, via Facebook
8. Know what resources are available to you BEFORE you need them.
College is amazing in that on more campuses than not, you have a ton of free mental health resources. Even if you don’t think you’ll use it, it can’t hurt to familiarize yourself with where your mental health resource center is and what it offers — that way, if you find yourself actually needing it, it’s one less difficult thing to deal with during an already tough time.
9. Same with talking to your professors about any issues you might deal with before they become a problem.
Check in with professors at the beginning of each semester to see what accommodations might be available to you. And if you find yourself falling behind even a little, it’s always better to talk with them sooner than later. “Professors are much less receptive if you’ve missed six classes and are missing five assignments,” says Roy. “When you begin to feel like you’re falling behind, that’s the time to go to your professor.”
10. Then, actually use those resources when you need them. Take advantage of accommodations. Talk to a counselor.
“You’re not a ‘failure,’ you’re not ‘making it up’ and you’re not ‘taking the easy way out’ if you decide to consult a health care professional. You wouldn’t be ashamed for going to the doctor and taking fever reducers if you had a fever — mental health issues can be just as serious. You shouldn’t deprive yourself of resources that can help you just because you’re embarrassed that others will judge you. Your health is WAY too important.”
—Cate Arrom, via Facebook
11. Pay attention to how drinking and partying make you feel.
For lots of students, drinking is a part of the college experience and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re dealing with depression, it can help a LOT to pay attention to your drinking and partying habits so you don’t make things harder on yourself.
“When you’re feeling depressed and you drink, that’s when it becomes dangerous, because the protective walls come tumbling down,” Jan Collins-Eaglin, Ph.D., Associate Dean of Students for Wellness and Personal Success at Pomona College, tells BuzzFeed Life. “Drinking is not going to make it better. If anything, it’s going to make it worse.”
12. Develop a relationship with your academic adviser.
“Getting to know your academic adviser well can be one of the most important relationships you can form on campus,” says Roy. Academic advisers are in a position to give you advice when you’re feeling overwhelmed, like what classes it might make sense to drop or how to take on a more reasonable course load. All important things to help you keep afloat.
13. Make time for self-care.
Life is more manageable when you make time to treat yourself well and show yourself compassion. Here are 31 self-care ideas, whether you’re dealing with depression and want to supplement your chosen treatment methods or just want to make life a little easier.
14. Don’t be afraid to drop classes or change majors if you need to.
Having to drop a class or make a big change ≠ failure. “Much better to recognize your limitations and take a break than to stick it out and drown in anxiety or depression,” says Roy. If you feel like you’ve taken on too much, talk to your professor or academic adviser about your options.
15. Have some expectations — and then get ready for them to change.
Don’t let yourself put a bunch of pressure on college to be the ~best years of your life~. Obviously, college can be awesome, but having such high expectations will only lead to you feeling crappy and like you’re doing something wrong if your expectations aren’t met, says Collins-Eaglin. Be honest with yourself about your expectations and whether or not they’re reasonable.
16. You don’t need a “good” reason to seek help or therapy.
“Just because your problem may not seem ‘big’ doesn’t mean you don’t deserve help. I saw classmates struggling with major depression and felt that by comparison, I should be able to handle my minor bouts of anxiety. I thought I would be wasting the school’s resources if I went to the counselor. The truth is, those resources are there for a reason, big or small. If a mental health issue is affecting you, it’s worth giving it the time it needs!”
17. If you live in the dorms, your RAs are great, compassionate resources to chat with.
“If they can’t give you any advice, they’ll at least be able to point you in the right direction for the resources you need or are looking for.”
18. SLEEP, seriously. And exercise and eat well.
You might feel pressured to pull all-nighters for homework or to put sleep second to socializing, but you shouldn’t underestimate the difference getting enough shut-eye can make for your mental health, says Roy. “Whenever we’re already feeling down or depressed or anxious, lack of sleep magnifies those feelings tremendously,” she says.
On that note, being healthy physically — like exercising and eating well — can go a long way to enhance your mental and emotional well-being, too, so don’t skimp. If you have no idea where to start, here are some low-key tips for getting healthy without ruining your life.
19. Don’t try to hide what you’re going through.
“I used to bend over backwards to disguise the fact that I was having emotional problems from the people around me. It was only once I got to the brink of completely falling apart that I finally told someone, and then it was basically too late — I had to take a semester off from school just to pull myself together. At the time, I was very ashamed of this. I thought that everyone would think I had failed somehow. However, it ended up being really good for me: I emotionally stabilized to the point where I could have a part-time job, and I ended up changing my major to something that suited me much better. It’s been more than three years and I’m much, much happier now. Don’t run yourself into the ground for pride’s sake.”
—Sarah Connor, via Facebook
20. Know the warning signs that you might not be doing so hot.
College is tough, but don’t wear yourself out because it feels like it’s normal to struggle your way through it. If stress gets to a point where it’s interfering with your sleep, eating habits, schoolwork, or social life, that’s one of the first signs you’re getting out of “normal” stress territory and should seek help, says Roy.
21. Then, check up on yourself regularly.
“Really open up and take a long look at how you’re feeling (physically, emotionally, etc.) and analyze what’s going on. Once you figure out what may be wrong, you can move forward with how to address what’s going on. Just suppressing or dismissing these things is just going to cause more problems down the road. Be proactive in making sure you have balance in your life (or at least make sure you’re working towards getting that balance).”
—Katie Wiley, via Facebook
22. There is no time limit on adjusting to college, so don’t feel bad if it takes you longer than you think it should.
“Don’t believe all the thoughts your anxiety and depression give you like I did. If something in your head tells you, ‘Everyone else is adjusting and getting used to college, why aren’t you?’ remember that almost everyone is thinking that too. It’s just that some people are better at hiding it than others.”
23. Don’t be an overachiever your first semester.
The easiest way to burn out is to put too much on your plate — which is very tempting at college where there’s so much to do. But resist the urge. “Don’t join five clubs, take a difficult course load, and have a work-study job,” says Roy. “Start off with one, maybe two at most, activities just to get started with. Once you have a routine in place and you’re comfortable and you feel you might be able to take on more, great.”
24. But do try to find one group or organization that you’re really pumped about.
“Join a club [or] organization. You may not always want to be around people, but it is one of the best ways to make friends, and we ultimately need that human interaction.”
—Pamela Szeto, via Facebook
25. If you’re thinking about changing up your treatment or medication plan, consider waiting until later in the year.
“Many students think that college is the perfect time to ‘turn over a new leaf’ by stopping therapy or going off their meds, but the beginning of the year is not a good time to make that decision,” says Roy. “It’s precisely the time you’re going to need the ongoing support of whatever’s been working for you.”
26. Don’t let FOMO rule you — saying no is totally fine.
“It’s okay to trim the schedule tree. A lot of people go to college and get involved in different activities. You find a couple clubs that suit your interest, then you gain some friends that might not all be in the same group, your RA encourages you to help with homecoming… You can go from ‘I’m here to focus on school’ to ‘I have 45 minutes for homework next week’ without realizing how busy you’re making yourself. If you find yourself starting to feel overwhelmed, try skipping a meeting or telling your friends you’re not up to going out one night. Having a few more open slots on your schedule can do wonders for your mental health.”
—Katy Shaw, via Facebook.
27. Don’t become too dependent on friends and family back home.
Calling your mom or best friend for some support and love can help ease the transition. But if you find yourself talking more with people back home than connecting with potential new friends on campus, then you need to make a change, says Collins-Eaglin. Being constantly connected that way will make it impossible to thrive in a new environment. It’ll be uncomfortable for a while, but a little bit of discomfort is healthy, says Collins-Eaglin, and will help you grow in the long run.
28. Give yourself breaks — even if you have a million things to do.
“It’s OK to have days where you don’t do any work. Allow yourself time to rest and recuperate. You’re not going to produce your best work if you’re drinking cans of energy drink and forcing yourself to sit in a cold, dark library whilst you stare at the screen of your laptop trying to grasp inspiration for out of thin air.”
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