Finding or Losing Yourself? College Students on Mental Health

Finding yourself. Coming of age. Partying. Being Care-free.

Living in a world heavily influenced by media, the “college experience” has been portrayed by these terms. Popular movies and shows directed toward young adult and teen audiences often create a distorted fantasy around college – with scenes expressing the magnificence of newfound freedom.

“No one wants to watch a three-hour movie of someone nervously studying for a midterm,” columnist Lilly Williams writes in The Review. “Growing up watching these movies and TV shows can cause students to have certain expectations for what their life will be like and cause disappointment when it doesn’t work out that way.”

In actuality, more than 25% of college students have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental illness. Of these, 73% of college students with mental health conditions have experienced, on campus, a mental health crisis.

“I had this idea that I would have time for class, time for studying, time for homework, time for partying, and time for self-care,” said Belmont sophomore Parker Williams. “The reality I found is that you basically get to choose two of those.”

About 42% of students suffer from anxiety, the most common mental health issue for this demographic. The National Institute of Mental Health defines anxiety as a “display of excessive worry, most days for at least six months, about a number of things such as personal health, work, social interactions, and everyday routine life circumstances. Madison Smith, a junior at the University of Tennessee, was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder her sophomore year of high school. Smith said that her anxiety was easier to manage before college.

“As I transitioned into the college life, it quickly became apparent that being in social gatherings, new classes, a new place of living, and not around my family anymore made my anxiety worsen,” Smith said.

New atmospheres and unfamiliar situations can be triggering to those with mental health issues. “It’s a lot different than what anyone is used to in high school,” Smith said. I think there are a lot of expectations for students coming in and when they aren’t fulfilled, that can make it worse.”

Depression is the second-leading mental health issue on college campuses, with 36.4% of students struggling. “Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease your ability to function at work and at home,” according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Depression on college campuses often leads to lower grades, work ethic, and increased drop-out rates. While attending Belmont, P. Williams ended up needing to take time off school due to depression.

“My depression is like the overwhelming feeling of not wanting to try because I don’t think I will succeed or don’t think there is even a point in trying,” Williams said. “I constantly feel stuck and that does not mix well with the rigor of college.”

Depression can also lead to isolated oneself and detaching from reality and responsibility. Williams often found himself, “sitting in a dark room for days at a time, only coming out to eat or use the bathroom.”

Anxiety and depression are not the only forms of mental illness students struggle with during college. Bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and eating disorders affect college students’ ability to learn and adapt.

Chai Golden, a junior at Columbia College of Chicago, shares the hardships of multiple diagnoses including bipolar disorder, autism spectrum disorder, OCD, PTSD, major depressive disorder, and borderline personality disorder.

“I will sit in bed for months and then have a few days where I feel normal again,” they said. “It didn’t really affect my life before college, but once I was on my own a lot of things changed for the worse.”

The pressures of living on your own can be overwhelming for most. Those who suffer with mental health issues are less likely to adapt positively to change.

Golden continued, “I found that the stress of being on your own and having to make your own connections has been extremely detrimental to my mental health and no one could have prepared me for it.”

A common theme among these students was that of plummeting grades. When new and challenging circumstances present themselves, oftentimes the students withdraw.

“My anxiety makes me put off assignments and studying, which then makes me anxious that I’m behind. I can’t put all my effort into assignments which results in lower grades than usual,” Smith said.

Golden agreed. “I have definitely missed assignments, done poorly in school, and even not showed up to class due to my depression. No one understands how hard it can be to just show up,” they said.

The strain is also being felt by professionals. 95% of college counselors report that mental health concern is growing on their campus, and many students feel as if there are not enough resources on campus to help them navigate through the transition. Many students are asking for more options for counseling and therapy.

“It makes no sense to me that there are untrained counselors giving free counseling services,” Golden said. “On top of that, the counseling services are so inaccessible it makes it so hard to seek help when you need it.”

Other students, like Smith, are advocating for more leniency in college courses.

“I wish there were more days allowed for students to miss classes due to mental health issues. Just because I don’t have a doctor’s note for my panic attack does not mean it didn’t affect my ability to perform.”

Universities are starting to listen. After the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools are starting to transform their mental health resources. A report from the National Academies notes that “institutions can improve support for student mental health not only by strengthening services but also by changing policies. For instance, leave of absence and re-enrollment policies should allow students who experience mental health and substance use problems enough time for effective treatment and recovery.”

Although improvement can be made at all universities, there are resources available for students attending UTK. The University of Tennessee says it supports “caring for all Vols,” where they are dedicated to providing high-quality services that support students’ mental health. Many universities are working on adding free mental health screenings, extra professional training of staff, more leniency on academic deadlines, virtual counseling, and self-help courses.

National Suicide Prevention Line – 800-273-8255
National Mental Health Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
UTK Counseling – https://counselingcenter.utk.edu/clinical-services/counseling-services/
UTK Self-Help Resources – https://counselingcenter.utk.edu/additional-resources/
UTK Mental Health Clinic Information – https://counselingcenter.utk.edu/mental-health-clinic/
UTK Crisis Resources – https://counselingcenter.utk.edu/clinical-services/crisis-resources/

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