Stress and Mental Health in College: A Brief Guide for Students and Parents

By Parth Kalia




College can be one of the most exciting times of our lives. Thinking back to perhaps when you were in college, there are probably many emotions that come to mind, ranging from excitement and anticipation to dread and uncertainty. In today’s article, we elaborate the factors that many students go through in their college years that can add to their stress and affect their mental health.

Newfound Independence and freedom: When we talk about independence in this context, we refer to the fact that our children who are now in college are no longer dependent on their parents to plan their day to day living. In many ways, that translates to some degree to their health and wellbeing. In essence, a college student no longer has someone discouraging them from staying up late and surviving purely on junk food if they so choose. While we may train our children in healthy living; the newfound independence and freedom can mean that they might get into bad habits which ultimately add to the stress of their college life.

The need to fit in vs. the need to Stand out: While in school, we tend to be restricted in the ways we express our uniqueness and individuality. In college, however, we can wear what we want, speak as we choose and behave with fewer restrictions. With this unfettered free will comes the burden of deciding the ways in which we try and fit in and the ways in which we try and stand out from the crowd. This can mean that we risk falling prey to peer-pressure and be someone other than ourselves or that our uniqueness risks us not having a social circle. These counteracting pressures, if not balanced, add to the stress of college.

An Age of Firsts: College can be the time that we come across many firsts. This is the first time we live alone, the first time we are responsible for our own lives, our academic success, the first time we may try things such as alcohol or drugs and, most importantly, make the decisions that will determine the direction of our lives. Our first relationships, our first encounters with real responsibility for our own actions and the consequences that come with our successes and failures. What that translates to can be to mistakenly take on too much and believe ourselves responsible even when we aren’t or to mistakenly not seek help when needed, particularly as it pertains to stress and anxiety.

Prime Age for Mental Health diagnoses: The ages of 18-22 are the ages when many clinical mental health disorders are often noticed, diagnosed or triggered. When placed in a stressful environment and away from the support of the family, individuals may for the first time see symptoms emerge for mental illnesses. Part of this is the stress whereas with certain disorders, their symptoms are thought to emerge in this age group as a feature of the disorder itself. Furthermore, when placed in a setting outside of home, behaviours that may be thought of as normal or attributable to one’s personality finally are put in a setting where they can be compared to others and seen as abnormal.

Importantly, college can be a confluence of all of these factors and create a scenario where a student may face more than just the usual stresses of college. There are many ways to address these concerns but as a parent, here are some basics to start with to teach your college going child about stress and anxiety:

  • Availability of Counselling Services: Colleges under the University Grants Commission (UGC) of India are required to have counselling services for anxiety and stress in place for students. Find out what those are when sending your child to a college and ensure that your child is aware of them.
  • Education: Educate your child about these concerns and teach them that there is no shame in discussing their mental health with a therapist or a trusted elder.
  • Communication: As with many previous concerns ensure that there is an open line of communication between your child and you. As discussed above, the burden of responsibility can sometimes mean that a child can feel shame seeking help for their stress and their mental health concerns since everyone around them is (at least as far as they see it) coping successfully. Make sure they know to reach out and talk to you as needed.

Lastly, when in doubt, seek a consultation with a professional as needed. While there is certainly a line between stress and anxiety, one can often lead to the other and addressing stress and coping can still help your child lead a productive and happy college life.