Top Mental Health Challenges Facing College Students

Sarah Reese
May 4, 2021

Beginning a new chapter of your life can be both terrifying and wonderful. When the excitement of starting college fades and the lumbering workload grows harder, reality sets in.   Suddenly, you are spending long nights huddled over a textbook, pulling all-nighters at the library, struggling to keep your eyes open to finish an important essay, and likely working a part-time job for financial stability. Most college students consider this to be the busiest time of their lives (Time).   Students pay a lot of money to attend college and, as a result, a heavy amount of pressure to succeed tends to sit on their shoulders. Even though this pressure does not necessarily cause mental health challenges, it can affect them.   For example, it can spiral anxiety into a chaotic cyclone that consumes everything fun. Perhaps it shapes itself into depression, turning that previous optimism into constant skepticism and hopelessness.   If you feel this way, then you are not alone. One in four students have a diagnosable illness. 40% of students choose not to seek help. 80% feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities and 50% have grown so anxious that they struggle in school (Best Colleges).   This is considered to be the generation that sees no stigma attached to mental health due to a shift in attitudes, definitions, and a willingness to seek help (Health). There are a number of mental health challenges that college students face head-on. However, for the purpose of this article, we will only be identifying the signs and symptoms of the top two most common mental health challenges facing college students: Anxiety and depression.


Most people feel low levels of stress and anxiety. That doesn’t mean they suffer from anxiety disorders. An anxiety disorder occurs when that anxiety interferes with daily life.   It can affect your ability to function by causing a tremendous amount of fear or stress. According to the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness diagnosed in the U.S. today. Approximately 40 million adults over the age of 18 deal with anxiety disorders; however, only one-third actually seek and receive treatment.   There are many anxiety disorder types, including (but not limited to):
  • Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD): everyday interactions may cause fear, self-consciousness, embarrassment or anxiety.
  • General Anxiety Disorder (GAD): a presently constant anxiety that interferes with daily activities.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): obstructive fears, obsessions, and thoughts that lead to repetitive compulsions and behaviors.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): commonly triggered due to experiencing/witnessing a horrible event.
  Symptoms associated with anxiety disorders are often written off as daily stress and worrying too much. It’s important to remember that symptoms can manifest themselves differently in each person.   Common symptoms affiliated with anxiety disorders are:
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Fearfulness
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stress
  • Apprehension
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pain
  • Tension
  • Frequent upset stomach or diarrhea
  • Irregular heartbeat

Anxiety resources

If you are seeking further information that can help students who are struggling with anxiety, then these organizations are excellent resources:  

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America

The ADAA is an organization that is dedicated to promoting the treatment, cure, and prevention of anxiety and depression. The ADAA also explains low-cost treatments that can benefit those who are dealing with an anxiety disorder.  

Anxiety Resource Center

This is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to providing assistance to those who suffer from anxiety disorders. The Anxiety Resource Center includes a list of education materials and a blog, so you can stay up-to-date on breakthroughs regarding research.  

Beyond OCD

For suggestions and resources to help cope and conquer OCD in college, Beyond OCD offers the right tools to help sufferers find support groups in their area.

How to cope with anxiety

Talk to someone

Since you know that you are not alone in feeling anxious, it's important to talk to others about what you're feeling. Soemtiems even a simple conversation can change your perspective on what's giving you anxiety. Talking to others also helps you feel seen.   You could also seek a therapist and work on anxiety coping mechanisms from a trained professional. Your campus should provide these types of resources, and better yet, you'll know a college therapist is experienced in people who are dealing with the same things you are.  


Meditation is a cost-effective strategy and coping mechanism can actually have incredibly positive effects on managing your overall anxiety and stress. Simply meditating for 5-10 minutes a day is known to calm and soothe the mind from racing and worrying about the past and future.  

Journal your thoughts

Sometimes all you need to do to stop anxiety in its tracks is simply get out the thoughts in your head onto paper. Writing things down can help release overwhelming feelings from your body and organize them in a way that is more logical and calming.   If you're feeling anxious grab a pen and a piece of paper and start writing it all out. Then check-in with yourself after and see how you feel.  


Depression is a serious illness that is unfortunately rather common. The APA (American Psychological Association) claims that depression is the most common mental disorder. This is caused by a combination of genetics and environmental, psychological, and biological factors. Depression can leave you feeling helpless, despondent and completely detached. As a result, it can impede on your daily life to make regular everyday tasks like studying, sleeping, eating, and working feel difficult.   Similar to anxiety disorders, symptoms for depression may differ from person to person.   There are three key symptoms related to depressive illnesses (but not limited to):
  • Emotional: People who are struggling with depression commonly deal with feelings of being overwhelmed, as well as a hopelessness, powerlessness, and sadness.
  • Physical Well-Being: This can be recognized through changes in sleeping habits and appetite changes. Whether there is an abundance of oversleeping and/or overeating, or difficulty sleeping and/or loss of appetite.
  • Mindset: A generally negative outlook. This is typically paired with difficulty concentrating and paying attention, resulting in a large strain to complete work tasks and readings.
More >> A deeper dive into the signs and symptoms and coping mechanisms of depression

Depression resources

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

The ADAA is an organization that is dedicated to promoting the treatment, cure, and prevention of anxiety and depression. The organization provides insight into understanding depressive illnesses. They also include links and mobile apps designed for those who are living with depressive illnesses and are seeking help.  


For college students who are seeking mental health wellness, ULifeline offers tips for helping friends who are dealing with a crisis as well as ideas for creating better wellness habits.  

American College Health Association

Promoting healthy campus communities, the ACHA works to advance the health of college students. Their website includes plenty of resources such as brochures, links, and helplines.   If these mental health challenges are left untreated, they can become life-threatening and debilitating. Additionally, if you feel that you or someone you care about may be experiencing these challenges, it’s important to take action.   Be mindful that it is difficult to approach a friend regarding these illnesses — it’s common for people to dislike being told what they’re feeling or what they should do, so be supportive and patient. If you apply too much pressure on a friend, you may end up worsening the situation.   I also want to make it clear that this quick guide is not a substitute for treatment. Here, we aim to provide resources and information to those who are seeking it; however, if you feel that treatment is best, then you should contact a medical professional.