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Stress, anxiety mount as students return to college, leave home for 1st time

Posted November 6, 2018 5:45 p.m. EST
Updated November 7, 2018 2:32 p.m. EST

Social withdrawal is a red flag that friends and family should watch for, and can be a sign even from afar that mental health issues are present. (goldenKB/Big Stock Photo)

This article was written for our sponsor, Triangle Springs.

College is a time for self-exploration, learning and – yes – stress. For many, this is the first time they'll be living away from home and the pressure to find success can be overwhelming.

Along with all the new stresses that come with college life, students are now carrying baggage from a much earlier age with them onto campus.

"I think what's happening is we're seeing high school kids suffering from anxiety from the pressures of getting into schools," said Dawn Johnson, director of outpatient services at Triangle Springs. "Once they get into college, they're more predisposed to it, it becomes more of a stressor."

Even before students are entering or applying to colleges, exposure to social media creates unrealistic expectations that many kids try to emulate.

"There's a lot of pressure to look a certain way," Johnson said. "There's an idea of what the standard is. Nothing on there, typically, is real. It's almost an unrealistic standard. I think the pressure starts sooner, and as they get into high school the pressures shift and change into academic and then into college, so it just continues."

With classes and clubs and internships all fighting for a place on the schedule, the average college student has a plethora of daily activities to choose from. When students no longer seem interested in pursuing any of these opportunities and begin to withdraw, that’s a signal that something is wrong.

Social withdrawal is a red flag that friends and family should watch for, and can be a sign even from afar that mental health issues are present.

"They isolate themselves," said Katie Pacos, an in-patient therapist at Triangle Springs. "They start to miss more and more classes, [and] are sleeping the majority of the day."

For some, practicing self-care could be enough to stem the tide. Taking a yoga class or going to the gym can help build social bonds and provides an outlet to help improve energy levels and concentration.

Making friends with common interests can help, and if the student begins to slip, friends notice when someone stops showing up for weekly activities. At that point, it may be time to reach out to professionals. Luckily, students on campus have options readily available nearby.

Most four-year universities feature counseling, and making students aware that the option to speak to someone is available and that those conversations are confidential can provide an easy outlet for stressed students.

One way that students may attempt to cope with the stresses of college life is to abuse drugs and alcohol. College campuses are densely packed and opportunities to engage with these substances are plentiful.

Students may want to partake because it’s a social experience and some of their friends do it, or just to try it. But either of those opportunities could lead to prolonged abuse and addiction.

"We have to look at the why," Johnson said. "There's peer pressure and the course load, the stress, the anxiety. Depression may turn to [substance] abuse."

One of the easiest ways to curb depression and anxiety, and prevent substance abuse is for parents to remain connected to their children. That doesn't always mean calling every day and knowing the intricacies of their schedule; it could be something as easy as enjoying the same TV show and texting about it.

Maintaining that relationship shows that parents or loved ones are still invested, even when the student is now out of the house.

"At the end of the day, it's like 45 minutes or an hour of your day," Johnson said. "We might like football, but they may hate organized sports. Find out what you can do so you can have those conversations. It's not easy, but when you do, you see the light in them."

College can be a time of great self-discovery and vulnerability. Everyone's experience is different, but knowing the warning signs, the resources for treatment, and just staying connected can help set a student up for success while attending college.

This article was written for our sponsor, Triangle Springs.