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Anxiety and Depression on College Campus

Updated 14 June 2017 Written by Deborah QuinnClinically Reviewed by Sarah Fletcher, LPC, LAC
male college student studying, drinking energy drinks
Many people reflect on college as one of the best parts of their life. However, this expectation can place an increased burden on new college students. For most, it’s their first time living away from home. The academic competition increases and new social circles form quickly. Students who got good grades in high school without much effort often see their grades drop as new academic challenges are met. For most students, starting college coincides closely with the transition to adulthood, which for many can be difficult.  With all these changes, many students develop anxiety disorders and often struggle with depression. Fortunately, most colleges today have the resources in place to support students in need when they are ready to reach out for help.  Unfortunately, most college students do not utilize the resources effectively until things have spiraled too far.

A survey of counseling center directors reveals that mental health problems are a growing concern on college campuses. Anxiety affects the most students (41.6% of those coming to the counseling center, followed by depression (36.4%). Counseling centers are stretched thin with the number of people needing mental health support. That said, only half the students who drop out of college for mental health reasons ever reach out to a counseling center.

What Causes so much anxiety on College Campuses?

One explanation is simply the prevalence of anxiety disorders in the US.  An estimated ~40 million adults in this country struggle with an anxiety disorder. Three-quarters of them (or 30 million people) had their first episode of anxiety before turning 23. In other words, college is when anxiety disorders typically take hold. But this doesn’t really explain what stressors are most often responsible for all the anxiety in college.

Matthew Tomatz MA, LPC, is a counselor at the Wardenburg health center at CU-Boulder where he works with college students day in and day out. He speculates that the changes in the political, economic, and environmental climate create more uncertainty for college students. With the fast-paced changes happening in the world, college students aren’t sure how best to prepare for their future.

Matthew says that social anxiety is a common form of anxiety among college students. He mentions social media as a contributing factor, citing how people portray themselves as having so much fun. This portrayal gives others the impression that they are missing out. Social belonging ranks very highly in the value system of most college students.  Unfortunately, the perception portrayed in social media and reality are often quite different.

How Alcohol and Marijuana Affect Depression and Anxiety

A desire for social relevance also affects drinking and drug use on college campuses. Matthew explains that people drink alcohol and smoke marijuana with their friends or at parties to fit in with their peers. Unfortunately, alcohol increases depression symptoms. Contrary to what most college students believe, cannabis can contribute to anxiety. Regular marijuana use can even cause anxiety disorders.  With both depression and anxiety, marijuana and alcohol use are often common coping mechanisms for both of these.

Advice for CU-Boulder College Students struggling with Anxiety and Depression

Matthew offers some great advice for college students. CU-Boulder has 30,000 students, so it’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed. The massive student body also means a lot of diversity. Matthew recommends finding a core community and spending time cultivating relationships within that smaller group. This could be centered around an interest or activity, the dorm you live in, your major, etc. Having this smaller community gives students a sense of belonging and support challenging times.

Matthew also recommends learning about all the services available on campus. He says that the counseling center collaborates with many other departments and services on campus. Students are often unaware of all the options available to them, and at the Wardenburg Health Center, they try to meet each individual’s needs in their own way. For one student, this may mean counseling, referring them to the recovery center and providing psychiatric care. For another student, it may be as simple as referring them to a club or a sober community where they can find a subset of the community with whom they connect.

Treatment for Depression, Anxiety and Substance Abuse for Young Adults

Some people do better with higher levels of support than most colleges and universities can provide. Sandstone Care offers a treatment continuum for young adults struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues. We focus on integrating treatment into our client’s lives, so you may not have to drop out of college to participate in our programs. Our clinical team has extensive experience working with anxiety and depression. Call (888) 850-1890 today to see how we can best support you.