Massive survey finds 1 in 3 college freshmen struggle with mental health—here are 4 things you can do

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Mental health is a major concern on college campuses around the world. According to new research published by the American Psychological Association, over one-third of first-year college students are impacted.

Researchers from the World Health Organization, led by Columbia University Psychology Professor Randy P. Auerbach, surveyed nearly 14,000 first-year college students from eight countries (Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain and the U.S.) and found that 35 percent struggled with a mental illness. Auerbach says this finding “represents a key global mental health issue.”

The most common mental illness was major depressive disorder, with 21.2 percent of respondents experiencing lifelong symptoms, followed by general anxiety disorder, which affects 18.6 percent of students.

Though schools around the world have made serious investments in mental health resources, the researchers found that colleges are still ill-equipped to deal with the surge of mental healthcare needs.

“While effective care is important, the number of students who need treatment for these disorders far exceeds the resources of most counseling centers, resulting in a substantial unmet need for mental health treatment among college students,” Auerbach tells EurekAlert. “Considering that students are a key population for determining the economic success of a country, colleges must take a greater urgency in addressing this issue.”

He remains optimistic that innovations and advancements in online mental health resources will provide students with low-cost accessibility to healthcare resources.

“University systems are currently working at capacity and counseling centers tend to be cyclical, with students ramping up service use toward the middle of the semester, which often creates a bottleneck,” he explains. “Internet-based clinical tools may be helpful in providing treatment to students who are less inclined to pursue services on campus or are waiting to be seen.”

Dr. Sherry Benton is the former director of the University of Florida counseling center, current Vice President of the Society of Counseling Psychology of the American Psychological Association and founder of TAO Connect, the kind of online mental health resource Auerbach mentions. She tells CNBC Make It there are several things that students can do to stay on top of their mental health while in college:

Don’t self-medicate

Benton says that common misconceptions about what college life is like can lead to mental health difficulties. “Students often assume that heavy alcohol use and drug use are somehow pervasive and acceptable,” she says “Students are surprised to learn most of their classmates are not drinking to excess or using drugs and that the average number of sexual partners in a year is one. About one out of five students does not drink at all… Excessive drinking is the exception, not the norm.”

The idea that everyone is drinking or doing drugs can give students false ideas about what it means to be in college. When students use substances they believe to be a normal part of the college experience to self-medicate, they face serious mental health risks, she says.

“The danger with regard to mental health is a student will try to self-medicate anxiety, depression or other problems with alcohol and drugs,” explains Benton. “This just doesn’t work. In addition, the college years are frequently the time when addictions develop.”

Be proactive about overall health

The most important thing that students can do for their mental health is to be proactive about their physical and mental well-being. The stresses of moving to a new place, making new friends and taking challenging classes can result in students placing their health on the back burner. But by eating well, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and making time for friends and relaxation, students can give themselves the best odds for success in school.

There are also several resources that students can use to proactively manage their mental health. “Almost everyone can benefit from some good prevention,” says Benton. “Resilience training can prevent disorders from developing.”

Resilience training teaches students how to bounce back from disappointments or traumas and can be self-administered or administered by a mental health professional. By learning and practicing how to deal with failure, students who take resilience training can prepare themselves for setbacks when they arrive.

Know when it’s time to ask for help

It’s essential that students know when it’s time to reach out for help. “It is much better to seek help as soon as possible,” says Benton.

She says that one of the first signs that indicate a student should seek out help is if they are having trouble concentrating.

“If stress and anxiety are interfering with memory and concentration (these are often early symptoms), get help immediately, before your grades are affected,” she says.

Today, a wider range of mental health resources are available than ever before, and self-help resources can be valuable and cost-effective preliminary options for students experiencing low-level mental health symptoms. The American Psychological Association, Mental Health America and TAO Connect offer resources online, including cognitive behavioral treatments, mindfulness or acceptance and commitment therapy.

Meet with a professional

“If the problem is more serious or has continued for several months, help from a therapist can be highly effective,” says Benton. “Most colleges and universities have a counseling service or offer a student assistance program that can help evaluate a student’s situation and get them to the help most likely to be effective.”

Students should not hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional, especially if they are experiencing severe or prolonged symptoms. Colleges often offer one-on-one counseling, group counseling and support groups that can help give students the help they need to take care of their mental health and make the most of their college years.

Of course, if your mental health symptoms are preventing you from doing the things you love, you should seek serious treatment. If you have suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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