If you’re a college student in 2018, it’s probably safe to say you’re stressing over more than just classes. Between internships, extracurricular activities, late-night study sessions, and having a life, students these days have their hands full.
As exciting as it is, college also means learning to adapt in often unexpected ways—from learning to live on your own for the first time, to meeting people from different walks of life, to figuring out how to function on very little sleep. And, whether you realize it or not, all of these changes and responsibilities have the potential to impact your overall well-being.
According to a 2017 survey of more than 63,000 students at 92 universities from the American College Health Association, 39 percent of (both male and female) students surveyed reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some point during the previous year. Nearly 61 percent felt “overwhelming anxiety” and 87 percent felt “overwhelmed by all you had to do.”
So if you’re currently in college and feeling like you’re drowning under the pressure, you are absolutely not alone. And, more importantly, there are resources out there that can help. The problem is, not all college students are actually using those mental health services.
As a counselor at a university health center in New York City, I often hear reasons such as, “I don’t have time,” “I can’t afford it,” “I’m not that stressed,” or “I can handle this on my own.”
Among college students in particular, mental well-being is often overlooked because of its tendency to be “invisible” or experienced internally. It can also be hard to make the connection by yourself when symptoms start affecting your mood, academic performance, or physical health. At times, it can feel like struggling is just part of being in college. Students have also told me that they don’t want to appear weak by asking for help.
But I know firsthand the benefits that students can reap by taking advantage of mental health services at school—and I have some insider knowledge to help clear up some misconceptions about pursuing the mental health resources available to you on college campuses. Here’s what you need to know.
1. You don’t have to be in a crisis to seek help.
You never have to feel "bad enough" to go to therapy or seek supportive services on campus. Even if it seems like you’re just dealing with life’s basic stressors (homesickness, an annoying roommate, an exam grade you’re unhappy with), talking to a professional may help you tackle them more efficiently and prevent a slow buildup of stress that can be much more difficult to conquer on your own down the line.
But counseling can also help you manage more serious issues ranging from anxiety and depression, to issues with gender identity and substance abuse, to body image—all of which are concerns among students on a college campus, according to the 2017 annual report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) at Pennsylvania State University. (The report looked at data representing 161,014 college students seeking mental health treatment at 147 college and university counseling centers.)
You also may not understand the severity of what you’re going through until you discuss it with a professional. A therapist can help you spot signs of mental health issues earlier and teach you the skills to deal with them.
2. No one needs to know that you’re going to therapy.
Some students worry about the cultural stigmas around therapy, but it’s important to not let this worry influence your decision about whether to seek out a therapist.
If you feel nervous or embarrassed about your friends or family finding out, remember that therapists are bound by their professional code of ethics to protect your information unless court mandated (for example, if your counselor has reason to believe that you may harm yourself or others, there are necessary steps he or she will have to take to promote the safety of all parties involved).
You can also inquire about over-the-phone sessions if you feel uncomfortable walking to a specific building or a therapist’s on-campus office. That way, you can have your session in a private, more discreet space, like a dorm room or apartment, if you prefer.
3. It doesn’t have to be a weekly commitment.
Therapy is more flexible than you may think. Going to therapy once doesn't mean you're committing to a certain number of sessions. You can go biweekly, monthly, or work with your counselor to set a unique schedule as needed. After meeting with a counselor a few times, you can also ask about doing phone or video sessions to make it easier to connect around your schedule.
For context, according to the CCMH report, the average number of appointments in the year was 5.61, but the range was anywhere from one to 123 appointments. Therapy can be as accessible—or as sporadic—as you need it to be.
Although consistent treatment is often the most effective, it’s OK to use other therapeutic outlets, like an app or free online resources, when you have gaps in counseling.
You’re also encouraged to shop around for a therapist who fits your needs and personality. If you don’t get a good gut feeling from the first person you meet with, you can ask to be assigned to someone else and keep looking for the right fit.
4. It might even be free (or cheaper than you think).
The majority of health centers on campus offer free sessions up until a certain point. After this, you can talk to your counselor about continuing sessions with another professional off campus, especially since basic mental health services are now covered by most insurance providers.
If you don’t have insurance, your on-campus counselor can refer you to professionals who provide low-cost treatment, such as therapists who offer sliding scale payment options (which means that you pay an adjusted rate for a session based on your individual circumstances and what you can afford).
You can also ask your counselor about whether the health center offers low- or no-cost sessions with supervised graduate students.
5. It’s a great way to learn about other resources you should be taking advantage of.
An on-campus therapist can act as a liaison and connect you to other resources at your school, such as LGBTQ groups, sexual assault support, or workshops for managing anxiety.
If your counselor believes that you could benefit from certain academic accommodations on the basis of mental health concerns, you could even get a recommendation for disability services (e.g. additional time on exams to help reduce anxiety). Knowing what resources are available to you before you need them can help you better handle any unexpected crisis.
6. It can feel really empowering to do this one small thing for yourself.
Just taking that first step to make an appointment or learn more about what resources exist on your campus is actually doing a huge favor for yourself. And you deserve that.
So if you think it might be helpful for you, do a quick Google search for counseling services on your campus. After you find the main number, email, or address on your school’s website, you can call, send a message, or just walk into the health center to get set up. If you can’t find the information you’re looking for online, ask your academic advisor for it.
Don’t feel pressured to share details about what you’re going through with your advisor if you don’t want to. You can simply say that you want to learn more about supportive services for students.
Once you take that step, applaud yourself for prioritizing the most important person in your life—which can be incredibly hard to do when you’re in college. You got this.