Why are college students struggling with mental health?

By Yoni Ganger, MHC

I’ve been working with high-achieving college students for many years, and have seen, up close, a marked rise in mental health struggles since the start of the pandemic. Students are more anxious, depressed, and feeling lonelier than ever.

What’s going wrong? Why are students collapsing, despite their freedom from parental constraints, the built-in socialization of dormitories and campuses, and being able to learn what speaks to their interests vs. the “cut and paste” of high school curricula?

This is a complex topic, more worthy of a book than a blog post. But, let’s spend a few minutes looking at the basics, which can inform a few practical tools to help college students with their mental health.

First, and foremost, is FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. For a variety of reasons, including the proliferation of social media, students compare themselves to others more than ever. Students worry that they should be more social, more beautiful, more successful, and more happy. In other words, students are primed for anxiety because they always think they’re doing the wrong thing! A clear solution is to help college students form their own identities, preferences, goals, and aspirations in life. When we strive towards a vision, we become less likely to focus on others.

Second is distraction. College students today need to contend with umpteen notifications from social and news feeds, communications, and entertainment. It’s almost impossible to focus on one’s work, or even friends, while checking one’s phone. To me, this is a key reason why students can be lonely even if they’re surrounded by others – technology always wins, and the students themselves lose out on forging connections! Another clear solution: I encourage all of my students to shut off their phones (a) while working, (b) while socializing, (c) and for at least one hour on one night per week.

Third, is something that often goes missing in discussions about college mental health: spirituality. A substantial volume of research suggests that college students who seek out spirituality are protected against depression, suicidality, and alcohol/substance misuse. This makes sense. As college students transition from their teenage years to early adulthood, their developmental stage inherently involves finding purpose and meaning in life. Regretfully, most colleges shy away from topics of spirituality, so this area remains vague and undefined, but spirituality is nevertheless a common pathway to defining values, and forming a cohesive identity. As an ordained rabbi-therapist who proudly wears a Yarmulke, many of my students ask about spirituality, and I have consistently found that discussing this area with them is of great value.

The above three ideas are just drops in the bucket. College mental health is a vast topic today! However, I hope this starts to explain why many students are struggling today, and provides a few directions for what we can do about it. These ideas and strategies can help students to not only survive, but thrive in college environments, despite the many unique challenges they may face along the way.

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