Higher Education and Mental Health: Keeping Your Mind Healthy At University

Posted on 24/05/2018

Recently there has been an uptake on interest and stories about mental health problems in students. Mental health is the ability to properly adjust emotions and behaviors to current situations. Students are experiencing identity crisis, problems adapting to a new environment, and pressure due to studies. All this can trigger mental illnesses such as (mild) depression, burnouts, anxiety attacks. Recognizing that you are on a slippery slope to mental instability and turning it around is crucial for your academic, professional, and personal success.

Why keeping an eye on your mental health is important

According to a report from the American Mental Health Association, 64 % of  students who are not attending college anymore mention mental health as a reason for dropping out. Students say that depression and anxiety are the top reasons for their underperformance.

Keeping an eye on your mental well-being is important. An anxiety attack will make you unable to finish your presentation, and depression suck out all the motivation you have to pick up your books. If you catch yourself staring at your computer screen or book for an hour without reading or writing a word, reach out for help or talk with someone.

How can you help yourself remain sane

One stigma around mental health is that it is a sign of weakness. But, listen to these stats: 25 % fo young adults (aged 18 – 24) have a mental health issue, and 75 % of lifetime cases begin by age 24. Having a mental health issue isn’t uncommon. It might not be popular but you are going to do nobody a favor if you deny it. Least of all you.

There are a couple of steps you can do to remain in good emotional shape:

  1. Discuss mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar, post-traumatic stress disorders and others in your social circle. In that way everyone is aware that they exist and what the signs are. This raises awareness.
  2. Make yourself aware of the counseling services that are offered by your university.  In that way, if you feel depressed or anxious, you know that there is help. Most universities offer some services. For example, student advisors help with your study load. Career services can take the pressure and anxiety of finding a job by preparing you for interviews, and getting to know your strength and weaknesses.  Other universities have phone-in or computer programs that you can use to assess your mental health. In some cases, it might be hard to find the right person, but most universities have at least one psychological professional whose job it is to support and help students. It is important to keep on asking, and not to give up getting help.
  3. Talk with your friends about your emotions. Be open when your friends mention that your behaviors are not appropriate for a certain situation as this can be a sign that your emotional well-being is at stake.

How going abroad can make you mentally unstable

While studying abroad is a great experience, it also carries certain mental risks. If you are already diagnosed with a mental illness, or think that you might have one, do not shy away from going abroad. Just go prepared. You need to discuss your plan with your counselor, or seek one if you haven’t yet done so. Going abroad is dangerous because you are leaving your familiar environment, with your known support network, and you might not be able to speak the language. You are entering uncharted waters which will require from you extra diligence and effort in getting familiar. For example, consider the little things: Will you be able to buy your favorite food ? How long do stores stay open? These little changes can add up. When I went abroad to the US, I was so happy to find a familiar grocery store (ALDI) that I gladly did the long journey just to have some familiarity.

If you want to go abroad these are the steps you should taken:

  1. Make plans with your counselor.
  2. Pick a country that is culturally not too different than your home culture.
  3. Go to a place with friends.
  4. Plan for a trip home half-way through your time. Buy the ticket.

If you have to remember one thing about this article, remember this: HALT – don’t get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. This will reduce triggering mental health issues. Now, head over to EDUopinions and pick a country you are familiar with to check out universities.

Written by
Katerina Bohle Carbonell, Ph.D, writes on topics related to higher education and people management in companies in high ranking international journals and on her personal webpage. She obtained her Ph.D in organizational behavior at Maastricht University. She currently teaches at Northwestern University’s and works on products and services to increase the use of data-driven decision making at Maastricht University.