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A Mental Health Game Plan for College Students and FamiliesRob Danzman, MS, NCC, LCMHC
People always told me that college would push me harder than anything I'd ever experienced, and test me in completely new ways, but it wasn’t until I finished up my freshman year that I started to understand exactly what that meant.
College is a time of excitement, exploration and growth, but it’s also when students have to start learning to handle their own life responsibilities outside of school. From trying to figure out a career trajectory to dealing with mental health as life throws curveballs at you, the number of challenges young adults face in college is endless.
We all try our best to hit the ground running as freshmen, but the reality is that everybody stumbles. And the pace doesn't let up — throughout college, students must constantly adapt to new environments and situations.
It's completely normal to struggle and feel confused about what you can do to help yourself, and it's also completely normal to feel out of control or as if you're falling behind. It takes courage to accept that you might need a little help to figure things out and be at your very best.
I hope that my experience will shed some light on what your student might be going through, as well as how you can help guide them in the right direction.
Looking back, my friends and I all tried to deal with grief, trauma and stress alone, struggling for years before we finally realized we could benefit from professional guidance. After finally admitting to myself that I needed a therapist in my life, I urged all my friends to do the same. But though many of them agreed to try it, some never ended up going. Others tried one session and didn’t click with that particular counselor, making them believe that therapy as a whole wasn’t right for them.
I myself resisted therapy for a long time, trying a session every now and then (when I had the nerve), hoping something would finally click. I remember the first time my roommate and I decided to give our campus mental health resources a shot because we were both struggling with different things. We went to walk-in hours together, filled out forms and went to our respective appointments. Afterwards, we went home and cried together talking about everything we finally got to get off our chests during our initial intakes.
Though it may seem obvious, it was a revelation to us how cathartic it felt to speak to a therapist. Neither of us clicked with the first therapists that we saw, so it was quite a few months before we revisited the idea, but taking that first step was huge for both of us.
I chose to go through my on-campus counseling centers mostly because my student insurance covered their services, but they also provided ease of access and knowledge of other campus resources. In addition, I thought a therapist who was connected with the university would know what kind of support my professors and school could provide, and that was important when my schoolwork was suffering as I dealt with different life events.
My campus had multiple counseling centers (some focusing on specific things: academic pressures, grief, victim's advocacy, etc.) and I jumped around the different locations trying to find a therapy experience that felt comfortable to me. I realized different things affected my ability to feel at ease — the waiting room, the atmosphere of the therapist's office, and even the building could make me uncomfortable or closed off.
Eventually I found an amazing therapist which helped me to a key realization: it takes time to find the right therapist for you as an individual. And that's exactly what he was — the perfect therapist for me. He was an incredible resource through a variety of situations where I otherwise would have been completely lost. He asked me questions about myself I had never considered, and led me through the nuances of my personality and mental health that shape my ability to feel comfortable in therapy (it turns out I'm more open with therapists closer to my age which is still a bit bizarre to me, though I know now it's necessary for my growth).
Learning to take care of yourself during college is one of the most difficult things to do, because you are without a strong support system for the first time. It’s easy to make the choice to pick one, academics or mental health, but eventually the goal has to be finding a balance between the two. This is, of course, much easier said than done, which is where mental health professionals can be a huge help.
My roommate and I both struggled with asking for help growing up, and one invaluable thing therapy taught us was how beneficial it is to do that, and that our professors were there to be supportive resources for us. In addition to the academic pressures that we had expected coming to college, there were the unexpected difficulties of life in general cropping up every couple of months. We both found ourselves pushing ourselves to our breaking points as we tried desperately to handle our personal problems while prioritizing our academics.
My roommate ended up choosing to go to therapy every once in a while whenever she thought she needed it, while I chose to schedule regular appointments. I changed therapists quite a few times, hoping to find one that was really compatible with me — though I didn't quite know what I was looking for until I found it. I saw my therapist once every two weeks and grew immeasurably as a person during our two years of sessions. He held my hand through some incredibly difficult times and never failed to be supportive and encourage me to ask for help and take the time I needed to heal.
My therapist helped me see that my hesitance about therapy was built on preconceived notions as well as my own deeply rooted issues with asking for help. When we really started to work on my issues and practicing healthy coping mechanisms, I realized that my suspicion that therapy was a waste of precious time I didn't have (as I felt I was already so far behind on what I thought I needed to accomplish) was a lie.
The uncomfortable truth was that I was wasting more time struggling to keep my issues bottled up beneath the surface than I was in therapy, actively working to fix them. Though our sessions have ended, the lessons I learned about myself were hard won and will stay with me forever.
Your student may fight against the idea of asking for help, or be afraid to admit even to themselves that they’re having a hard time handling things. But the fact is that college is a huge adjustment personally as well as academically, and the pressure to figure out your life and be on track to accomplish your dreams and goals can become an unbearable weight. It’s important to remind them that it’s natural to wrestle with the idea of admitting you're vulnerable and need help; this doesn't diminish their strength or capability.
If your student has tried therapy in the past and wasn't thrilled with the experience, encourage them to take the time to find the right therapist who can make them feel completely comfortable. They might be more at ease with a younger or older therapist, a male or a female, or maybe it's just an issue of personality. Though the process can often feel futile, finding a therapist your student is compatible with will create a nurturing environment for your student to heal and grow into the best version of themselves.
There are misconceptions and stigma surrounding the idea of therapy, but the truth is there's no right or wrong reason to see a therapist. People can go for grief, for trauma, for trouble focusing, to try it out as a new experience or simply because they enjoy it! Many people make therapy part of their lifelong wellness regimen — just one more way they take care of their body, mind and spirit.
No one needs to justify why they go to therapy or want to go to therapy. It can be beneficial for everyone and though it can take a while to find the right therapist, the experience will incontestably help you grow.
Help your student take the best possible care of themselves and get support when they need it.