Why Are So Many College Students Excessively Stressed?

Written By Marc Lehman

Four tips all college freshmen should know to improve their experience and reduce stress.

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

As a family therapist of 20+ years working with teens and young adults I have noticed a concerning trend. Many young adults in high school and college are extremely stressed out and anxious. Their healthy coping skills are limited and the amount of stress and strain they take in is immense. In order to help your student, it is very important to look at why this is occurring and what can be done to help.

Statistically, the mental health of college students is becoming a huge problem in our country. As an example, suicide is now the second-leading cause of death in college students. We need to start paying attention to this. Why are so many students struggling?  Why are the anxiety and depressive rates continually increasing annually for college students?

Google lists the national graduation rate of college students in 4 years as 42.9% and in 6 years as 61%.

Do those numbers surprise you?

According to College Atlas, 70% of Americans will study at a four-year college, but less than two-thirds will graduate with a degree, and 30% of first-year students drop out after their first year of school. A sizable amount of the students who don’t complete college reference emotional distress or mental health issues as the reason.

Assuming these statistics are all correct, why aren’t we coming up with better ways to take care of our students that are in college?

These are the future leaders in business, healthcare, law, education and many other professions. They will ideally one day be running our country. We are simply teaching students information in classes and not giving them ways to survive the stress of everyday life.  The help that is available for many students often isn’t engaging to them.  They are so busy during the day that taking time for an appointment is very challenging. Most students that need assistance want help to be private and confidential. They want it to be delivered in a way that they are comfortable with. It is these reasons and many more that only 11% of students actual get help when they need it.

Many students get to college as Freshmen completely unprepared.  Most of them think they are prepared and they become overwhelmed quickly. Communal living can be challenging. This type of living is completely new. As a result, the rookie college student needs to learn how to get along with someone they are around a lot.

Tip 1: Learning how to communicate their needs and insist on a baseline level of mutual respect from and to their roommate

This can be practiced at home before students get to school in order to begin their first semester on a positive note. This may feel artificial to role play this, but it does help Freshmen to know what to say and step up and actually say it proactively. Don’t forget this typically small room, called a dorm room, is their new home.  There is very little privacy and in order to get along it will require some level of communication and flexibility.

Academics will often start off slow. Teachers will often spend the first week of a semester reviewing a syllabus and what work will be coming their way.

Tip 2: Get organized

I suggest spending one hour per class that first week getting organized (as there is usually not a lot of work — this will replace the typical work they would do that week). Either use a handwritten calendar that all academic things are written on and then placed somewhere in the room they have to glance at it several times daily.  Or a computerized calendar that syncs to their phone (otherwise known as the thing they have on them all the time). Everything on the syllabus should be on this calendar. They then follow this one convenient tool to stay organized and reduce stress around procrastination of getting work done. Getting into the habit of looking at this multiple times a day to prepare for that evening or the rest of their week will actually reduce anxiety. As a rule, I suggest two to four hours daily of out of class work. This can be reading, writing papers, or studying. This should be split up and not done all at once.

The social side of college is also very important. Many students arrive at college with social experiences. Most are different than what they will encounter while at college. The basic change of living together with many other students on their hallway is vastly different for public high school graduates. Socializing and spending time with other students can be a great way to burn stress and manage anxiety.

Tip 3: Encourage your student to join a formal club or intramural on campus

Have them look up on their school’s website what clubs or intramurals their school has, and push them to go to an initial meeting. It may be a formal club or intramural. Either way it will require some energy to make a first meeting to see if they may enjoy it. This is a fantastic was to meet students outside of their dorm. Having an outlet to socialize clearly reduces stress for students, as they have people to spend time with, get advice from, and go to if they are experiencing difficulties.

Tip 4: Be open and friendly to others in your dorm 

Students don’t recognize initially that their dorm neighbors are a perfect group to make friends with. They always come back to the same place each evening and often students will go to dinner together as a group. For students to be included in this type of socializing they need to leave their door open and be friendly upon seeing new people in the hallways.

Communicating well with roommates, beginning the semester organized, spending two to four hours on out of class work, socializing in the dorm and joining a club or intramural is the formula for a happy college freshmen. My happiest students have done each of these things. This leads to a balanced world and a managed amount of anxiety.

Getting help when needed is also super important. U ARE HEARD is an engaging and easy to use solution. U ARE HEARD is online coaching for college students.  We see students for video sessions as they are very comfortable with this type of communication.  Many students look forward to meeting and getting this type of help.

U ARE HEARD, has helped many as we bring support directly to the student.  We assist through online sessions.  We work within your students schedule and allow for them to get help when they otherwise may not. Helping students is our passion. We want students to know there is support available and it doesn’t have to be hard to set up.

We are dedicated to impacting the statistics I referenced in the beginning of this article.  There needs to be a change in the way we offer help to students. U ARE HEARD is the modern way of students getting the help they need.

Written By Marc Lehman, Family Therapist and College Coach at U ARE HEARD LLC