Dear College Student, You Deserve to Be Happy

With stress and mental health issues increasing on campus, I wrote this letter of support and hope. Consider sharing this with your college students when they are home for Thanksgiving.

Dear College Student,

You deserve to be happy. College should have times of joy. But I know the road to happiness is filled with many obstacles. I hope this letter will help you find your way past these roadblocks to a wonderful college experience.

As a college psychiatrist, I hear stories about the stress you experience—academic pressure, financial challenges, anxiety in social situations after the COVID-19 pandemic isolation, illness and death in family and friends. The American College Health Association in their most recent survey describes the following concerns interfering with academic performance: finances, career, family, intimate relationships, and health of someone close to you.

With this increased stress, I’ve observed an increase in depression and anxiety on campus. In fact, my research group recently published an article that demonstrates a doubling of depression combined with anxiety from 2013 to 2019, with 1 in 4 college students experiencing symptoms of both depression and anxiety. If you are experiencing depression and/or anxiety, you are not alone.

With all the stress and mental health challenges on campus, how can you make college an enjoyable experience? Here are some ideas.

1. You deserve to enjoy the learning experience. You feel like you must choose the major that will lead you to the right graduate school or job. However, you may find yourself wanting to change your major; you thought you liked biology, but you find yourself far more interested in history. You are not alone in wanting to change majors, which happens to at least 1 in 3 college students. There is no wrong path. Find a major you enjoy; you will perform much better. Your job may or may not be related to your major, but the critical thinking and communication skills you learn in college will allow you to work in many different areas. I’ve seen several students majoring in the humanities go on to work in social media for large corporations. While choosing a major you enjoy, start thinking about post-graduation jobs in your junior year, and work with the campus career resource center to gain volunteer, internship, and work experiences that will enhance your future employment.

If a graduate or professional school is your goal, work with campus advisors to meet the necessary requirements to apply, which can include shadowing, volunteering, working, and performing research. Keep in mind that many students take a gap year to fulfill these requirements, which are far more extensive than when I went to medical school. A gap year is a great idea for students who find they can’t fulfill all these requirements and have enough time for good self-care. Sleep is often what gets neglected when students have too much on their plate, but keep in mind that adequate sleep improves physical health and academic performance. You will be working many years after graduation, and accquiring good self-care skills that include adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise will make you happier and more successful.

2. You deserve to have good friends who treat you well. Learning about relationships in college is as important as pursuing academic success. You have had periods of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic and may feel your social skills are rusty. You can take baby steps or large steps, but it’s important to get out there and meet people. Clubs, intramural sports, and volunteer work can be a great way to start.

Friends are people who help you feel good about yourself and with whom you can be yourself. Your friend group might change after freshman year as you discover the kind of people you want to hang out with. College is a learning experience; don’t feel badly if some friendships don’t work out. The friends you do make in college are likely to be lifelong. And remember, strong social support is associated with a stronger GPA.

3. You deserve to find intimate partners who treat you with love and respect. However, if you are not ready for a dating relationship, it’s fine to focus on friendships. There is no rush. If you do have a relationship in college, it may last or come to a natural end. These breakups can be difficult. Seek out support from your friends and loved ones.

You might be in a relationship that is starting to feel unhealthy. If a partner insists on always knowing where you are or stalks you electronically, you should be concerned. No one should try to control where you go or who you spend time with. If someone physically hurts you, that is a dealbreaker. However, you should consult with a counselor or domestic violence expert about the safest way to end the relationship. You can call the domestic violence hotline at 800-799-7233.

4. You deserve to get mental health treatment in a timely manner. My research shows that college students who experience depression or anxiety are utilized therapy and/or medication treatments. However, there are still many college students who face challenges in accessing care. Let a friend or a family member know that you are experiencing depression or anxiety so they can help you push past obstacles in obtaining treatment.

Call your campus counseling center if you need help. Many counseling centers offer urgent appointments. They may provide short-term treatment and have case managers who can help you find longer-term care with community providers or telehealth companies. If you need to talk with someone more urgently about thoughts of self-harm, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. Keep reaching out; I promise that there are people who want to help.

Dear College Student, you deserve to be happy. I wish you times of joy and growth. If you face academic, social, or mental health challenges, never give up. Ask for help from campus support services, family, or friends. Before long, you will be steadily journeying toward your people, place, and purpose.

©2022 Marcia Morris, all rights reserved.
Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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