Test Prep Insight is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

Mental Health Guide For College Students
By Megan Darlington Updated on January 3, 2024
Peter Bailey, MD Peter Bailey, MD

Mental Health Guide For College Students

Our all-encompassing guide to college student mental health, including need-to-know info, tips, and resources

College is supposed to be one of the happiest and most carefree times of your life. However, for many students, college has become a boilermaker of pressure, leading to a rapid rise of diagnosed mental health issues among university students. With increased academic competition, pressure from family and grad schools to get top grades, and politicization of classes and campus life, college just isn’t as carefree and easy as it once was. In this resource-packed guide, we dive into the most common mental health challenges college students face, tips for overcoming these issues, and access to the right tools and resources.

student mental health guide

College Mental Health Guide Outline

Use the jump-to links above to quickly navigate through this detailed mental health college guide.

Current State of Campus Mental Health

Up until the 2000s, asking for help to cope with mental illness and psychiatric disabilities was viewed socially as a sign of weakness. This was especially true when those seeking help were college students. To this end, campuses offered very little in the way of mental health services, and even fewer students actually accessed and utilized such programs.

This has all changed in the last 20 or so years, however. College students now take advantage of mental services more than any other generation of college students in history. Campus mental health services offices have become one of the most popular and heavily utilized departments at school, and for good reason. Without a doubt, mental health issues are on the rise. For perspective, here are some statistics to chew on:

ᐅ Among all mental health problems affecting college students, anxiety disorders are the most prevalent. Approximately 11.9 % of college students suffer from an anxiety disorder such as social phobia, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Depression is widespread among college students, with rates of diagnosed depression as high as 7% to 9% according to studies.

ᐅ Approximately 3.2% of college students are diagnosed with or meet the criteria for bipolar disorder.

ᐅ In a study on suicide rates surveying 8,155 college participants, 6.7 % of students reportedly have thought about committing suicide, 1.6 % reported having a suicide plan, and 0.5% reported actually having made a suicide attempt in the past year.

ᐅ A study of 2,822 college students reported that 9.5% of students had the symptoms and behavior of a clinical eating disorder, including bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating. Among this data, the proportion of females was greater relative to males (13.5% females vs. 3.6 % males).

ᐅ Somewhere between 2% and 8% of college students suffer from ADHD, and approximately 25% of students receiving mental health services on campus have ADHD.

ᐅ Approximately 20% of college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, reporting either alcohol dependence or frequent alcohol abuse.

ᐅ Roughly 44% of college students binge drink, with 20% engaging in this dangerous behavior frequently.

When read together, this bevy of data is fairly eye opening. Vast numbers of college students suffer from a variety of mental health problems, many of which stem from their university environments and associated pressures.

college mental health guide

As the recognition of mental health issues in young adults continues to increase, this statistical data should continue to be fleshed out even further, and it would not be surprising to see these numbers rise. Thus, for students that are currently suffering from mental health issues, you can see that you are far from alone.

Effects of Covid-19 on Student Mental Health

There is no doubt that Covid-19 has had a significant negative impact on the mental health of college students. This is supported by a recent study from Active Minds, a non-profit mental health organization, which found that “20% of college students say their mental health has significantly worsened under COVID-19.”

This is primarily the result of a combination of factors, including the sudden and tumultuous switch to online learning, lockdowns cutting off social events and extracurricular activities, and financial uncertainties. Roughly one-third of American students have suffered some level of harm to their mental and emotional health, and depression and anxiety rates are skyrocketing.

Distance Learning Effects

For many students, the switch from in-person classes to online learning has not been easy. In many respects, distance learning simply doesn’t provide the commitment and accountability that some students require. Many young adults are easily distracted, and need the structure of in-person classes to keep them motivated and on track.

Studying from home under a distance learning framework presents distractions and opportunity to skirt school responsibilities, which you simply wouldn’t have in an in-person learning environment. There is always a phone or Xbox controller within reach and the temptations of home can make focusing extremely difficult.

Distance learning additionally cuts off access to many office hours sessions, as well as the ability to ask questions after class. Rather than being able to pick a professor’s brain after class, or follow them back to their office for a quick office hour session, students are left with emailing for an appointment. Not wanting to be a burden, many students refrain from doing so, hampering learning opportunities.

student mental health

To be clear, colleges have made significant strides to more closely align their online classes with traditional in-person courses, but there are still gaps to bridge. Technology helps, but can only take you so far.

Tips for Distance Learning

Although more difficult in many respects, significant value can be gleaned from online courses if done properly. Here are some pro tips on how to make the most of your distance learning:

  • Establish A Dedicated Learning Environment. Whether you use a corner of your bedroom, a walk-in closet or even the laundry room, establish a space that is set up strictly for schoolwork. Compartmentalizing school and personal life can help to maintain focus and commitment to your studies.
  • Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions. Given that access to instructors outside of class has been cutoff in many ways, take advantage of class time to ask questions. For students that are naturally shy or don’t want to rock the boat, this can be difficult. However, most instructors are eager for student participation when teaching online classes, and should openly welcome questions. Take advantage of chat functions in your ed-tech platform to ask a quick question.
  • Set Reminders. Use your Google calendar or phone to set daily reminders about class time, assignment deadlines and more. Leverage your tech to make sure you are staying on top of your schoolwork. In this Covid-19 world of lockdowns, it can be easy to miss deadlines as days run together, so use alarms and reminders to keep yourself on point.
  • Meet Up With Friends For Class. If you have an online class with a friend from school, go to their apartment or home to watch class together. Watch the lecture, take notes, and recap the class after the live session ends. This will help to emulate a real class session and improve your mental outlook through socializing and having a shared bond.

Transitioning Back to In-Person Classes

For many students, the resumption of in-person classes can’t come soon enough. After a year of quarantine and social distancing, social butterflies are itching to get back to seeing their friends and meeting up after class to hang out. However, so as not to shock your system once more, remember to take it slow.

After being isolated for more than a year, it can be overwhelming to start meeting back up in 200-person lecture halls. This has the chance of triggering many students, causing anxiety and mental distress. You may not realize it, but your mind and senses have become accustomed to a quieter, slower pace. A sudden thrust into a busy and loud environment could bring on mental health issues.

Our advice is to start by registering for classes with fewer students. If you’re a little anxious about getting back to in-person classes, perhaps don’t start by signing up for that Communications 201 class with 250 open enrollment spots. Let smaller class sizes ease you back into the reality of in-person classes.

In addition, the more intimate class size has the dual effect of allowing you to meet more friends and create stronger social bonds, something much needed after a long period of isolation.

Top 6 Most Common Student Mental Health Challenges


Depression is a mental health disorder characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, isolation and loss of interest in activities usually found to be enjoyable. This disorder can cause significant impairment to mood and daily life. According to a recent Harvard Youth Poll, 51% of young Americans say they feel depressed or hopeless. In addition, with respect to college students specifically, 40% said they have experienced an episode of depression within the last year.

Symptoms & Signs To Look Out For

Depression can generally be identified through a number of symptoms, including loss of energy, irritability, changes in appetite or sleep patterns, mood swings, inability to concentrate, and lack of interest in doing anything.

young mental health

If you notice a friend is having wild swings, doesn’t participate in social activities like they used to, or appears to be down, talk to them. These are critical signs of depression.


Oftentimes those with depression don’t want help, or at least don’t want to turn to friends or family. It is important for them to know, however, that there are groups out there to help. Here are a few key resources:

American College Health Association. ACHA is a leading college health advocacy group dedicated to advancing the overall health of college students. They provide hotlines, as well as general text-based resources to help those feeling depressed.

ULifeLine. This organization is specifically focused on helping college students with mental health issues. They provide actionable tips and strategies for those suffering from mental health conditions, as well as resources for friends trying to help.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America. This group offers a wide range of tools and resources for those suffering from depression, as well as other anxiety disorders. They offer well-researched and deep materials on how to live with mental illness.


Just about every college student will experience some form of anxiety at some point during their time at university. Whether before a big exam, during a first date, or watching the 4th quarter of your team’s game, everybody feels the symptoms of anxiety. However, persistent anxiety which begins to disrupt you daily life can rise from normal anxiousness to a medical condition very quickly.

To be clear, there are many types of medically diagnosed anxiety disorders. These include: Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder. Each form of anxiety disorder carries its own unique symptoms and challenges.

And suffering from any one of these conditions is not uncommon. Almost half of all college students (42%) who visit their school’s mental health services office presents symptoms of one form of anxiety disorder or another. Additionally, 63% of college students felt overwhelmed by anxiety at some point during the last year, and 23% of those students were treated for mental health issues related to their anxiety.

Symptoms & Signs To Look Out For

Anxiety can manifest itself through a wide range of physical and mental symptoms, including but not limited to: shortness of breath, fear, sweating, dizziness, upset stomach, feeling like you are going to vomit, irritability, heart rate irregularities, headaches and general stress. Given that anxiety disorders induce physical ailments, many people mistake their anxiety for unrelated physical conditions. What many people think are unrelated migraines or heart issues often turn out to be relate to their more serious anxiety disorder.


Many students try to cope with anxiety on their own, sometimes by relying on alcohol or other substances. However, there are a number of groups with resources to help:

American Psychological Association. The APA is one of the largest mental health organizations in the country, publishing respected and insightful content on psychological conditions, including anxiety disorders. Much of their website is dedicated to breaking down the various anxiety conditions and helping to differentiate among them.

Anxiety Resource Center. The Anxiety Resource Center is a great benefit for staying on top of the latest research and findings around anxiety disorders. Their regular newsletter and website articles provide insight on breakthroughs in the field of anxiety disorders. If you think you may have a medical condition related to anxiety, it is a great place to learn more.

BeyondOCD.Org. This is a fantastic advocacy group for those suffering from OCD. It connects people with local, community-based support groups and provides helpful information, particularly for college students.

Suicide / Self-Harm

Suicide rates among young Americans has never been higher in recorded history. The fallout from Covid-19 has not helped either. At some point during the last year, close to 20% of young Americans have admitted to having suicidal ideations. Even if just contemplating the idea, thoughts of suicide and self-harm are not healthy. Those thinking about hurting themselves or taking their life should seek help immediately. And for those who suspect a friend or family member may be thinking about ending their life, you should not be afraid to speak up and get your loved one help.

Symptoms & Signs To Look Out For

The precursors to suicide and self-harm vary widely by individual, but most generally involve a change in mood, behavior and speech. For mood changes, be sure to watch out for signs of depression, anxiety or hopelessness. Displaying a loss of interest in friends, family and social activity is a telltale sign of suicidal ideation.

college mental health

With respect to speech, typical statements of someone contemplating suicide include saying that they are a burden, that the world would be better with them gone, or having no way out. General statements of despair can also be an indicator.

Lastly, watch out for individuals who show up unexpectedly and say goodbye. If their sudden display of emotion and parting gives you pause, it could be because they are thinking about taking their own life. Additionally, watch for your loved one withdrawing from social circles and the activities they love. This generally precedes suicide.


There are a myriad of resources to help those contemplating suicide or self-harm. Here are a few of the leading organizations:

American Foundation For Suicide Prevention. AFSP is one the largest and most effectual groups when it comes to educating Americans about suicide prevention. They offer techniques for broaching the topic with those that may be thinking about taking their own life, as well as research articles and live events. They are an authority on suicide prevention education and research.

Active Minds. For college students specifically, Active Minds is a major player in helping to educate students on university campuses. They offer local chapters at hundreds of universities across the US, which all train and educate students and teachers on how to identify and approach students contemplating suicide.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. For those that are seriously contemplating suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides warm and understanding counselors to help you talk through your issues. This is an emotional support line designed to help those at rock bottom with no where else to turn. Their number is (800) 273-8255.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders affect a wide swath of college students, particularly females. Specifically, around 13% of female college students present some form of eating disorder, while only about 3% of males fall into this category.

In short, such conditions revolve around irregular eating habits – either depriving oneself of proper caloric intake or eating too much. In either case, most eating disorders are driven by body image issues and obsessive concern for one’s weight and shape. Such conditions generally take the form of Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, or Binge Eating Disorder.

Symptoms & Signs To Look Out For

A key indicator of an eating disorder is if you notice a friend or family member that has highly irregular eating habits when you share a meal. If they never seem to eat in pubic, passing on food for a beverage only, or consistently consume much more than a normal portion size, they may have an eating disorder.

Other common indicators include: constant excuses for not eating or eating too much, statements about body image, excessive exercise, irregular heartbeat, loss of menstruation, or fear of being seen eating. Many college students don’t think they have an eating disorder, blaming their habits on stress from exams or studying. However, eating disorders affect students at rates often higher than the general population.


For those that suspect they or a friend may have an eating disorder, there are plenty of online resources to help. Here are a few of the better ones:

National Eating Disorder Association. NEDA is the leading authority on eating disorders in the United States. Their online resources include suggestions for local support groups, research-driven articles, and lists of therapists who can help with such conditions.

Eating Disorder Hope. This organization provides a broad range of tools, resources and referrals to help college students with eating disorders. Their site serves to raise awareness about eating disorders and educate people, dispelling many common misconceptions. It is a great resource for actionable tips and tools.

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Distorted Disorders. ANAD is a respected non-profit in the field of eating disorders that hosts an annual conference for bringing to together healthcare providers and authorities on the topics of anorexia, bulimia and more. They also offer a helpline for people suffering from eating disorders, as well as email support and other tools.

Addiction and Substance Abuse

The use of alcohol and recreational drugs on college campuses is not uncommon, but what is concerning is the recent rise in addiction and substance abuse levels. Close to half (44%) of college students have participated in binge drinking at least once during college and a large segment of the college student population admits to regular marijuana use. Worse yet, every year over 1,500 college students die from alcohol abuse or alcohol-related incidents. Finally, the use of stimulants like Adderall to improve studying and exam performance is up sharply over the last 10 years.

Drinking and partying has its place during college, and is part of the larger social experience of going to school, but in some cases, it can become an issue. Addiction is characterized by physical or psychological dependence on a substance, with strong cravings and inability to stop oneself from indulging. If you feel you need to have a beer every day, or smoke marijuana after every class, you very well could have a substance abuse issue.

Symptoms & Signs To Look Out For

The telltale signs of substance abuse and addiction are generally easy to spot – the person who has the issue simply cannot stay away from alcohol or drugs for any extended period of time. They feel the need to drink or smoke every day, and engage in such activities despite protests from friends and significant others. Less telling signs, however, include the following: weight loss, poor skin health, twitchiness, extreme tolerance to alcohol or drugs, money issues, paranoia, sings of intoxication and sudden change in friends or social groups. Any one or more of these signs could be a clue that your friend or loved one has an issue with addiction.


Perhaps more so than any other mental health issue, there is a plethora of resource-based help for those suffering from addiction or substance abuse. Here are just a few:

Center On Addiction. This site exists to help both individuals who are suffering from addiction, as well as their families. Oftentimes for college students, recovering from addiction and substance abuse takes a support system, and the Center On Addiction delivers excellent resources for friends and family members. They provide helpful books, reports and actionable tips.

Alcoholics Anonymous / Narcotics Anonymous. Most people are familiar with AA and NA. These organizations provide supportive community-based groups built around a robust 12-step program for recovery. These groups provide interpersonal support and a chance for those suffering to talk about their issues openly, honestly and anonymously.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA is all about research driven development is the field of addiction. They offer access to the most recent studies, clinical trial results and more.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is a mental disorder that affects how a person behaves. While researchers are still trying to pinpoint the root cause of ADHD, many believe it is partially related to genetics and childhood development. Interestingly, over 25% of all college students diagnosed with a mental illness on campus exhibit some signs of ADHD. It is a very common mental health condition, which affects males disproportionately (at a rate of 3 to 1, males to females, respectively).

Symptoms & Signs To Look Out For

ADHD is most commonly characterized by an inability to focus on tasks for any extended period of time, social attention difficulty, hyperactivity and impetuous behaviors. People with ADHD often act rashly, behaving without reason.

school mental health

Their behaviors are usually hyperactive, and they cannot seem to concentrate for any period of time. ADHD can also manifest itself in the form irritability, troubled relationships, low self-esteem, and depression. The most notable sign of ADHD among college students is inability to sit through full class sessions or study for exams.


Here are a few of the more prominent help groups for those suffering from ADHD:

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. CHADD is a leading non-profit organization for children and adults with ADHD, providing top notch resources. Not only do they advocate for the rights of those living with ADHD, but they also provide educational materials and sponsor regular regional meetings that educate on the topic of ADHD. One of their main focuses is training educators on how to teach children with ADHD.

Attention Deficit Disorder Association. ADDA provides a quick and easy test to determine whether you may be suffering from ADHD. They also offer virtual meetings and workshops to provide support for those living with ADHD. ADDA’s library is a notable resource for educational materials.

The Learning Disabilities Association of America. This group offers local meetings for people living with ADHD. If you are a college student with ADHD, The Learning Disabilities Association of America can help you to cope with your symptoms and make the most of your college experience.

Know Your Legal Rights

Federal, state and local laws prohibit colleges and universities from discriminating against students suffering from mental health issues. This includes prohibition against overt discrimination, as well as imputed or indirect discrimination. Students with mental health illnesses must be given every opportunity and right that students without such conditions are given.

college health

To accomplish this, higher education institutions must generally offer special accommodations, enrollment deferrals, leaves of absence, and access rights. Additionally, students living with mental health issues have protected rights to privacy. HIPAA and other federal disability laws ensure that educators must keep students’ mental health issues confidential. If an educator or administrator leaks or otherwise discloses your health issue publicly, you may have legal remedies against the institution.


Under Title IX, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disabilities Act, all higher education institutions must make “reasonable accommodations” to students with disabilities. These disabilities clearly include mental health illnesses, disorders and other conditions.

These accommodations generally surround your coursework and exams. Meaning, you can be granted extra time to take your exam, the ability to take your exam separately from other students, or provided special equipment. Educators must take reasonable action to ensure you are given the same opportunity to learn and perform academically as other students.

Asking for an accommodation is not something to be ashamed of. If you are suffering from a mental health condition, you need to advocate for your rights. If doing so, you must ensure you have medical documentation to support your case. Your mental illness cannot be self-diagnosed. You need substantiation from an authority on the matter, such as a medical doctor or licensed therapist. This documentation must address the need for such accommodations.

Note: This post contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice. Please consult a healthcare professional before making decisions or acting on the advice offered herein.