Going to college for the first time or coming back from summer break for another semester is one of the most significant transitions of a young person’s life and can take a toll on their mental health. Over the past few years, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, these challenges have only worsened. Research shows that more than 40% of college students reported having symptoms of depression, and 1 in 3 reported increased anxiety. The good news is that there is a wide range of resources available on campus to support students’ mental health.
Experts from the University of Utah Counseling Center offer their insight on how to mentally prepare to go back to college and outline resources available 24/7, 365 days a year.
Embrace the Transition
The transition from high school to college or back to campus after summer break is challenging for many reasons. For others, they may be living on campus for the first time, they may have new roommates, or they may be trying to make new friends. The stress of classes and expectations to excel also add additional stress, anxiety, and overwhelming feelings. If not managed well, these stresses can lead to depression. Our experts suggest ways to navigate this new reality and their advice is to embrace the transition and find your own path.
“First, there is this expectation that college students are supposed to handle everything perfectly, all the time,” says Christina Kelly Lecluyse, LCSW, outreach co-coordinator at the University of Utah Counseling Center. “Well, nobody does that. It’s not part of the human experience to do things perfectly. We need to remind ourselves to do one thing at a time and break the large complex tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks.”
“First, there is this expectation that college students are supposed to handle everything perfectly, all the time. Well, nobody does that. It’s not part of the human experience to do things perfectly. We need to remind ourselves to do one thing at a time and break the large complex tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks.”
Christina Kelly Lecluyse, LCSW, outreach co-coordinator at University of Utah Counseling Center.
Take Small Steps
Transitions are met with practical tasks, and for college students, these may include getting a parking pass or choosing a class schedule. “But sometimes when we are living with a mental health concern, those practical tasks can feel very difficult and we might manage them through avoidance,” says Josh Newbury, interim director at the University of Utah Counseling Center. "What we know about avoidance is that it is a common coping strategy that oftentimes makes something that can be hard 10 times more difficult.”
To avoid the “avoidance phase,” Newbury recommends taking one step at a time. For example, if you find yourself becoming overwhelmed with trying to fill your class schedule, you then tend to avoid it completely, rather than chip away at it. Instead, start by finding one class to take that day, rather than finding an entire schedule's worth. Avoidance only makes it harder down the line, so take it step-by-step and before you know it, there will be less on your plate.
Recognize your values
For students, there will be times when you lack motivation for school, yet you still consider it a very important thing, which can put you in a weird headspace. We know motivation can be elusive—sometimes it is there, but not always, which is why it's important to remember why you are in this position in the first place. In doing this, Newbury recommends stepping back and asking yourself a few questions to connect to your values.
- What are my values when it comes to being in college? What can I do to ensure those values are put into action?
- Why am I majoring in this field?
- What am I hoping to experience while I am on campus?
- What are some of the difficult things I anticipate coming up this semester? And how might I manage those difficult things?
“When you step back and remember why you want to be in college, then it becomes easier for you to work through those difficult times because then a value is attached to your efforts,” Newbury says.
Align your behavior with your goals
“One thing we teach in therapy is the idea of aligning your behavior with your goals, while learning skills for managing difficult emotions that may get in the way,” Lecluyse says. For example, on days when you are feeling unmotivated, get curious about why you are unmotivated—are you engaging in avoidance because you are anxious about the upcoming task? Are you dealing with depression or worry? Are you uncertain how to begin the assignment? Do you need more information?
Addressing the underlying issue related to the lack of motivation can help with problem-solving. Then, consider taking action, even a small step, toward addressing that need so that you can move closer to your goals. This could mean reaching out to others—friends, classmates, professors, or accessing other services at the U. At the Counseling Center, we have a variety of programs to assist students in developing skills that support good mental health, which can, in turn, promote academic success.
Simple, yet effective, ways to deal with feelings of anxiety, loneliness, or depression
- Practice mindfulness. Focus on your breathing and actively paying attention to what you are feeling.
- Name your feelings. Naming your feelings allows you to notice what you are feeling and tends to lessen their burden.
- Consider therapy. The University of Utah campus has many no-cost resources for students who are looking for therapy, whether individually or in a group.
- Find your community. Join a club or intramural sports team and surround yourself with like-minded people.
- Recognize your values. Remind yourself of your values and why you are here in the first place.
- One step at a time. Take small steps and avoid trying to do everything at once.
There is often a mentality and pressure put on college students to push through hard times, but that does not have to be the college experience. Take a break, stop, slow down, and create your own timeline.
The importance of finding your community while in college
At the University of Utah, it may feel overwhelming trying to find your people due to the sheer size of the campus, but there are endless ways to get connected. Student organizations, events through dorms and housing, athletics, mindfulness centers, and the student union are just a few ways to meet new people.
“I cannot emphasize this enough,” Lecluyse says. “Find your people, find your community and get connected. It does require effort, though. You must be willing to put yourself out there.”
Taking care of our mental health should be a priority, especially during new transition times, like going to college for the first time, or returning. But, for some, the stigma related to seeking mental health care is so engrained that students suffer in silence.
“Seeking mental health services is by no means a negative reflection on your capabilities, your skill, your maturity, or your intelligence,” Lecluyse says. “By seeking help from mental health professionals, you are allowing them to work with you to help you find success.”
Normalize seeking help for your mental health
At the University of Utah, there are several no-cost options for students seeking mental health care.
- Counseling Center: University Counseling Center, - open Monday - Thursday, 8 am - 6pm, Friday, 8am - 5pm. No-cost.
- Mental Health First Responders: Student-centered after-hours crisis response and prevention. Four days a week (excluding holidays). No-cost.
- Center for Student Wellness: Eccles Student Life Center and Student Services Building locations are open Monday - Friday from 8 am- 5 pm.
- SafeUT: The SafeUT app provides a way to connect to licensed counselors who are ready to listen to any crisis or concern. Help is immediate and confidential, and as easy as reaching for your phone and sending that first text. Download now. No-cost.
- 988: You can call, text, or chat the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 24/7, 365 days a year. No-cost.
- Huntsman Mental Health Institute provides specialty programs to prevent mental health crises and support people through them if they happen.
If you were already managing anxiety or depression or other mental health conditions before going back to campus and find yourself with nowhere to turn, know that support is here for you, right on campus. Reach out and seek resources before you even start school and avoid interruptions in your care as you begin or continue your college experience. You don’t want to wait until it all becomes too overwhelming. Help is out there, and you are not alone.
Everyone is impacted by mental health, and everyone manages it in their own way, but it is important to recognize the resources that are readily available to you, 24/7, 365 days a year.