The Transition to College Can Impact Mental Health

This article is the second in a three-part series sponsored by Alkermes, focused on supporting young adult students and their community as they navigate the transition to college. Mental health is a key part of that transition, and support is available.

Watch for part 3 of this series coming later this semester and refer back to part 1 for the complete series!

Transitioning to college isn’t always easy and can be full of challenges that may be overwhelming for students and their loved ones. With so many changes, newfound freedom and unexpected pressure, this season can have a profound impact on a student’s mental health and wellness.1 According to the World Health Organization’s World Mental Health International College Student Initiative—a study that surveyed students from 19 colleges in eight countries—approximately 35% of college freshmen report symptoms consistent with a diagnosable mental health disorder. 2

These symptoms could present while away at school or during school breaks. New schedules and routines have been developed, new mindsets and ideas explored. Family members might feel like they don’t even recognize each other in the ways they did before the semester began. That’s ok, but it can bring up a variety of emotions and challenges to navigate. At a time when things can feel unsteady, it’s important to keep an eye on mental health and wellness.1

There are many symptoms to look for that could indicate emerging mental health challenges. These may include feelings of sadness or fear, bouts of depression, loss of appetite, sudden risk-tasking behavior, seeing or believing things that may not be real, excessive substance use, mood swings, impulsive behavior, difficulty concentrating or a drop in academic performance.3,4 Though many of these behaviors can be a normal part of a young person’s development into adulthood, a combination of unexpected or unusual behaviors could be warning signs of a more serious mental health issue or illness, such as schizophrenia.5

If one or several of these symptoms is present, it’s important to take note and seek support as early as possible. Here are some things to keep in mind:

• Take stock of what’s happening. Track the most concerning behaviors (those listed above or others). This will help when seeking additional resources or support from a healthcare professional (a primary care physician, psychiatrist, etc.) in the future. To assist in tracking what you’re feeling, consider accessing local resources or taking an online screening tool to better understand your symptoms.1,6

• Keep talking. Ask questions and set aside time to talk about how everyone is feeling – student, parents, siblings, friends and more. Consider asking other loved ones if they’ve noticed any concerning behavioral changes.6,7

• Speak to a healthcare professional. Set up an appointment during school breaks and make sure that you discuss mental health, the college transition and any behavioral changes you might notice. 6

• Act as quickly as you can. When dealing with a young adult’s mental health, timing matters. In fact, some studies point to early identification and intervention as being critical to disease management and improved outcomes.1,3 Early detection, accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment can assist in illness management and long-term outcomes for individuals living with a serious mental illness.8,9

The transition to college will likely be filled with challenges as students navigate stressful academic and social environments – these are expected. But if you begin noticing behaviors that are concerning, it’s never too soon to seek help.

If you are noticing differences in behavior and are concerned, consider reaching out to a trusted healthcare professional in your area or take advantage of mental health resources, such as  screeners, treatment locators and other educational resources, from organizations like Mental Health America (MHA), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) or the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

In the final piece of our 3-part series, we’ll discuss the importance of early intervention and support when a mental health diagnosis has been received. If you missed part 1, CLICK HERE for more information on some challenges associated with transitioning to college and how that transition may impact a student’s mental health.

This is intended as informational only and not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. 

References

1 Pedrelli P, Nyer M, Yeung A, Zulauf C, Wilens T. College Students: Mental Health Problems and Treatment Considerations. Acad Psychiatry. 2015;39(5):503–511. doi:10.1007/s40596-014-0205-9

2 Auerbach, R. (2018). WHO World Mental Health Surveys International College Student Project: Prevalence and Distribution of Mental Disorders.

3 Wyatt T, Oswalt S, Ochoa Y. Mental Health and Academic Performance of First-Year College Students. International Journal of Higher Education. 2017. doi:10.5430/ijhe.v6n3p178

4 Nami.org (2016), College and Your Mental Health. Starting the Conversation, [online] p.8. Available at: https://nami.org/collegeguide/download.

5 Gordon, J., Meltzer, H. and Tye, K. (2017). Advice on the Early Warning Signs of Schizophrenia. Brain & Behavior. [online] Available at: https://www.bbrfoundation.org/sites/default/files/images/brain-and-behavior-magazine-march-2017.pdf.

6 Nami.org. (2019). Depression. [online] Available at: https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Depression/Support.

7 Nami.org. (2019). Maintaining a Healthy Relationship. [online] Available at: https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/Family-Members-and-Caregivers/Maintaining-a-Healthy-Relationship.

8 Mental Illness Policy Org. (2019). Schizophrenia Fact Sheet – Mental Illness Policy Org. [online] Available at: https://mentalillnesspolicy.org/medical/schizophrenia.html.

9 Mhanational.org. (2019). Position Statement 41: Early Identification of Mental Health Issues in Young People | Mental Health America. [online] Available at: https://www.mhanational.org/issues/position-statement-41-early-identification-mental-health-issues-young-people#_edn7 [Accessed 20 Sep. 2019].

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