This blog post is co-authored by Juliana Kissinger and Emily Neer
Stress is a common feeling sensed by virtually everyone around the world for a multitude of different reasons. In fact, it would be surprising to hear of someone who says they experience no stress, especially a young adult in college or graduate school. With the pressure surrounding college students’ responsibilities, more attention should be paid to the stress students feel throughout college and as they confront the uncertainty – and oftentimes the unknown – of post-graduation paths.
Stress and Mental Health in Students
Overly high stress levels can be found on college campuses across the world. Students are surrounded by overwhelming pressures to finish school successfully with high grades, community involvement, and internship experience under their belts. As these emerging adults think about their futures post-college, the feeling of unknowing can be draining and exhausting as they compare their success (or lack of) to their peers’ success. In recent years, there has been an increased percentage of students needing to seek out counseling assistance, creating a high demand for mental health services. According to UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Clinical Systems Overview, the percentage of students seeking therapy increased by almost 2% which is about 700 students from the 2016 to 2019 fiscal year (1).
Many life circumstances put mental health to the test for college students. Some factors that cause this include issues with finances, self-esteem, family, and conflicts in peer groups. In essence, college is a self-progressing phase in life. Many college classes and campuses encourage teamwork through methods like assigning group projects that emulate real-world career situations, where working cohesively with multiple people is necessary. However, the ultimate goal of getting an education is for students to find a career they will enjoy for the rest of their lives. This intention is most often accomplished alone as students individually diverge into their own paths.
One research study found that when people are self-oriented in meeting their goals rather than socially-oriented, they are more likely to experience higher levels of maladaptive mechanisms like depression, shame, and guilt (2). An individual who is self-oriented aims to achieve aspirations for themselves, as opposed to a socially-oriented person who bases their decisions off of others’ beliefs and ideas. Students have a greater likelihood of succumbing to maladaptive beliefs due to the self-orienting nature of finding an optimal career. Most notably, students may feel that they need to be self-driven and disciplined so that they can graduate college to get a job and have a successful life thereafter. The effects of being self-oriented can be isolating and can negatively affect the mental health of many college students if they feel like they are not on the right life path.
Challenges like these in emerging adulthood may lead a large proportion of university students to feel anxiety about their future. A UCLA graduating senior, David Lipkin, spoke to us about the struggles he was confronting in his search for a job. That period in his life was the most stressful of his college experience, as he felt that he was pressured into creating a new identity for himself. “Throughout my life, my whole identity was that of a student, and now I have to choose a new role for myself in the world,” David said. This notion of leaving college and feeling the unknown creates discomfort and pressure, both physically and mentally, for students.
Possible Coping Mechanisms
Many things can be done to continue the conversation surrounding declining mental health for students. Mindfulness interventions show significant effects on lowering stress levels. For example, training attention with mindfulness meditation using interventions like mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy demonstrated to researchers that chronic stress can be dramatically decreased (3). Additionally, mental health services should be available and adequately funded for college students. For example, many colleges have implemented a variety of helpful resources such as career counselors and Crisis Text Lines, and have an option for in-person as well as virtual services (4). Stress management programs in college campuses’ mental health services are also pivotal because these programs could help students learn to manage their stress and start healthy habits early in college. To support virtual resources, some colleges have partnered with online services such as one called Talkspace in order to connect students to licensed therapists throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (4). Students heavily benefit from mental health services, and it is crucial for them to understand what can be done to relieve their stress.
In addition, many college campuses work on connecting students with alumni mentors. UCLA’s Alumni Mentor Program encourages students and alumni to connect so that alumni can share career, academic, and personal advice (5). Highlighting these programs for current students may help them in the transition from college to the post-college world. A knowledgeable, caring mentor can help students address the unknown of post-college life and help them make a plan. Universities could even formalize this process by offering courses for graduating students that provide additional career and life advice and connect them with mentors in their anticipated career field.
Another possible method for diminishing the negative symptoms of poor mental health is deliberate rest, or purposefully allowing the body to receive its much-needed rest in a mentally engaging way (6). Deliberate rest can take many forms: hiking, crocheting, cooking, reading, etc. It refers to whatever activities are considered personally restful and engaging that recharge the mind while also keeping it active. During downtime try immersing in a favorite hobby instead of scrolling through social media, which can take an emotional toll. Deliberate rest activities will leave the mind refreshed and the energy to engage again with daily responsibilities.
Support the Final Stage of Student-hood
In sum, there should be greater conversation surrounding the way students engage with their mental health as they emerge into adulthood and into their careers. Those with the resources and knowledge to help students succeed should do so by implementing strategies to help guide young adults into their chosen life paths.
1. UCLA CAPS Clinical Systems Overview, Fiscal Year. (2022).
2. Kilbert, J. J., Langhinrichensen-Rohling, J., & Saito, M. (2005). Adaptive and Maladaptive Aspects of Self-Oriented versus Socially Prescribed Perfectionism. Journal of College Student Development, 46(2), 141-156. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2005.0017
3. American Psychological Association. (2019). Mindfulness Meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress. https://www.apa.org/topics/mindfulness/meditation
4. Carrasco, M. (2021). Colleges Seek Virtual Mental Health Services. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/09/20/colleges-expand-mental-health-services-students
5. UCLA Alumni (2019). Alumni Mentor Program. Retrieved May 2, 2022 from https://alumni.ucla.edu/alumni-mentor-program-2/
6. MacKay, J (2018). Deliberate Rest: What It Is and How You Can Use It to Recharge. RescueTime Blog. https://blog.rescuetime.com/deliberate-rest/
Thumbnail Image via Tim Gouw on Unsplash