Just like your physical health, concern with and maintenance of your mental health is important not only to your overall happiness and well-being, but to your success in higher education and your performance in your individual courses.
The workload of higher education on its own can be stressful and leave a student feeling overwhelmed. Whereas school is the primary responsibility for most high school students, many college students balance this workload with demanding work or family schedules. In addition, students in higher education are more likely to be living on their own, without their parents to notice and ask about whether something’s wrong.
Institutions of higher education are not cold or uncaring places—more and more, schools are developing resources aimed at encouraging and helping to maintain their students’ mental health. The difference, once again, is that the responsibility falls to you, the student, to identify when you need help and seek out the resources that can provide it.
As with your physical health, the upkeep of your mental health is not just a crucial component of your general quality of life, but it also has a direct and profound effect on your academic success.
According to The National Alliance on Mental Illness, “The American College Health Association informs colleges (and all of us) that mental health needs are almost directly related to measures of academic success. Their 2015 survey found that students who reported psychological distress also reported receiving lower grades on exams or important projects; receiving lower grades in courses; receiving an ‘incomplete’ or dropping courses altogether; or experiencing a significant disruption in thesis, dissertation, research or practicum work.”*
It should be no surprise that students do not produce their best work in states of anxiety or depression, yet not enough students take seriously the idea that a big part of doing your best is feeling your best. Whether you are struggling with anxiety or depression or just feeling stressed out, thinking about your mental health and how you can improve it is a positive step toward optimizing your performance at school.
Out of those students who sought counseling, here is a breakdown of the issues they reported: anxiety (61%), depression (49%), stress (45%), family issues (31%), academic performance (28%), and relationship problems (27%).
No matter what temperament students might have, some degree of stress is inevitable as they work through their college career—it’s essentially a “fact of life” in higher education. This means that coping with and managing stress are essential skills for student success. There is no universal prescription for stress relief—different students will respond better to different methods—but there are definitely some time-tested best practices for coping with stress.
First of all, recall that your physical health and mental health are significantly related—working out or getting some form of exercise is an excellent way to relieve stress. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins that can improve your mood and diminish stressful feelings. Doctors and therapists are increasingly citing the benefits of meditation for stress relief—just ten minutes of meditation can train your body to achieve a state of relaxation in which your blood pressure decreases and your mood improves.
Another key component of stress management is making sure you reserve some time each day for doing something you enjoy. This can involve socializing with friends or engaging in a hobby or activity that you do on your own—anything that will improve your mood and thus put you in a better position to succeed when you return to your schoolwork. In addition to these practices, you can also reduce stress by adjusting your attitude— remind yourself that stress is temporary and you can and will get past it.
The most common mental health issues that college students struggle with include depression, anxiety, substance abuse or addiction, and eating disorders. In order to properly avoid or deal with any of these issues, you need to be able to recognize them:
If you identify with any of the above symptoms, or if you're just struggling to get through each day and you're not sure why, it's in your best interest to seek help from a mental healthcare professional immediately. If ignored, mental heath disorders can become a serious threat to your well-being.
Most college campuses offer some form of mental health services, often housed at a counseling center. Counselors at a counseling center can talk to you about the mental health issues detailed above—depression, anxiety, substance abuse or addiction, and eating disorders. They can also help with other kinds of problems college students commonly face, including issues with relationships or sexual orientation, time management, grief, and adjustment to life in college in general.
Recall that colleges increasingly provide resources for the maintenance of students’ physical health and well-being because they realize that healthy students are happier and more productive; the same is true of colleges' relationship to students’ mental health. More and more resources are available to students to reflect on and improve their mental health. Whether your problems are big or small, your mental health and your academic performance can benefit from making use of these resources.
Many students struggle with mental health issues on their own, allowing their problems to fester or seeking to “treat” them with self-medicating quick fixes that can create additional problems. Again, most—if not all—students will at some point encounter some form of difficulty that can be better processed and dealt with by seeking help. Therefore, you shouldn’t hesitate to seek help due to fear of stigma—students who take steps to maintain their mental health are no different than students who work to improve their physical health.
Besides the potential to improve your overall quality of life, seeking help with regard to your mental health can help you optimize your academic performance. Certainly, if you are experiencing severe symptoms of depression or anxiety, addressing these symptoms will help to remove obstacles to your success at school. But even if your issues are relatively minor, consideration and assessment of your own mental health can help you achieve at the height of your potential.