6 Major Mental Health Challenges for Today’s Students

December 13, 2021 •

As social expectations shift and the pressure to succeed mounts, college students often experience mental and emotional challenges. School counselors today have many more students in their care than they did just a few years ago, with more complex issues than the students of 5 or 10 years ago.  In college especially, the need for mental health services can increase by 30-40% due to overwhelming stress and anxiety. Adding the anxiety of living through a global pandemic to these already mounting expectations has increased the severity of pre-existing conditions or introduced new, unexpected challenges for many college students.

6 Major Mental Health Challenges for Today’s Students

1. Depression and Other Mood Disorders

Depression is one of the most common health conditions affecting students today. Because school can be very demanding, young people may struggle to make time for self-care or activities that they enjoy. Oftentimes, students are also just learning to cook and care for themselves, which can cause them to feel overwhelmed, give them feelings of inadequacy, or result in nutrient deficiencies that may lead to depression. Sometimes, depression also occurs for no identifiable reason at all.

People experiencing depression will suffer from persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, despondency, and a loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. Depression can be episodic or persistent; sufferers of depression may also experience insomnia or sleep disturbances, difficulty focusing or completing work, changes in appetite, as well as unexplained aches and pains.

Common Mood Disorders In Students

Mood disorders that commonly affect students include:

  • Major Depressive Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
  • Cyclothymic Disorder
  • Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder
  • Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia)
  • Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder

2. Anxiety

As might be expected, anxiety is in high supply on college campuses. While experiencing some anxiety under pressure is healthy and normal, when the condition becomes chronic, severe, or begins interfering with daily life, intervention becomes necessary. Symptoms of anxiety can include persistent fearfulness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath, headaches, sweating, dizziness, upset stomach, diarrhea, and muscle pain.

Chronic anxiety can lead to students missing class, avoiding social situations, or even turning to substances to deal with the symptoms. Some students with anxiety may display physical signs of panic attacks and anxiety, while others may have “high-functioning” anxiety which can look more like perfectionism and may actually be “helping” them in terms of school performance, despite harming them mentally and emotionally.

Anxiety Disorders to Look Out for:

Students experiencing chronic anxiety may be struggling with an anxiety disorder. Types of anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Separation Anxiety Disorder
  • Agoraphobia

3. Eating Disorders (ED)

The challenges of college life can cause at-risk students to develop eating disorders. While female students more commonly struggle with this mental health condition (between 10 and 20% of college-aged women reportedly suffer from eating disorders), male students are not immune (between 4 and 10% of college-aged men suffer from eating disorders). ED can stem from low self-esteem or a need for control; these disorders are serious and potentially deadly.

While many students will experiment with restrictive dieting or fad diets in their college years, not all students who diet will develop eating disorders. However, college-aged students are the demographic most at-risk for developing full-blown eating disorders.

Eating Disorders That Can Affect Students:

Some common types of eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia Nervosa
  • Bulimia Nervosa
  • Binge-Eating Disorder
  • Pica

4. Addictions/Substance Abuse

Unfortunately, recreational alcohol and drug use is something that is too often normalized for college students. Whether at campus parties, clubs or at the bar, many youths begin experimenting with drugs and alcohol during their late teens and early 20’s. Because this behavior is almost encouraged, your students may be susceptible to developing addictions or exacerbating existing addiction issues.

In addition to using drugs and alcohol to party, some students in college begin experimenting with stimulants and prescription medications such as Adderall. These drugs are sometimes used by students in an attempt to increase productivity or alertness when faced with an overwhelming workload. This misuse of prescription drugs can be both dangerous and habit-forming, so it’s essential to stay abreast of this issue.

Common Substances Used by Students:

In college, students may begin experimenting with and abusing the following substances:

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Stimulants such as Adderall and nicotine
  • Party drugs such as MDMA (a.k.a “Molly”) or ecstasy
  • Hallucinogens such as LSD, acid, and mushrooms

5. Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD)

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is a condition related to PTSD, with some of the core symptoms of PTSD plus its own unique symptomatology. The condition is not diagnosable, as it is not included in the fifth edition of the DSM-5. It can often be mistaken for a mood disorder, since one of its tell-tale symptoms, emotional flashbacks (flashbacks to traumatic experiences that present without visuals), may seem like sudden “mood swings”.

The added stress of school and socializing with other students can trigger and exacerbate C-PTSD symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Emotional flashbacks
  • Hypervigilance
  • Chronic feelings of fear, anger, and resentment
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness or hopelessness
  • Chronic feelings of being misunderstood
  • Negative perceptions of self
  • Either avoiding interpersonal relationships or engaging in unhealthy relationships
  • Feeling easily “triggered” by other people
  • Dissociation (i.e. depersonalization, derealisation)
  • Suicidal ideation

What Causes C-PTSD

C-PTSD is caused by prolonged exposure to trauma or experiencing multiple traumas. Additionally, C-PTSD can also result from trauma experienced at an early age, that was enacted by someone close and trusted (such as a relative or family friend), or which was impossible to escape from. Growing up in an abusive home can normalize traumatic situations, so abuse sometimes goes unnoticed, even by its survivors. C-PTSD is the indelible mark that abuse leaves.

The types of traumatic events that can cause complex PTSD include:

  • Childhood abuse, including physical, emotional, sexual, or spiritual abuse
  • Childhood neglect and/or abandonment
  • Ongoing domestic violence or abuse (witnessed or experienced)

6. Suicidal Ideation

Many of the conditions described above can result in imagining or planning one’s own death, especially if left untreated. Unfortunately, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in youth ages 15-19. Overwhelming, persistent, or highly detailed suicidal thoughts are considered a mental health crisis and require immediate medical intervention.

Common warning signs of suicidal ideation will appear in someone’s speech, mood, and behavior. It is important that school counselors be aware of the signs of suicidal ideation so proper intervention can be enacted quickly. We recommend memorizing the signs listed below, as your students’ lives depend on it.

Signs of Suicidal Thoughts in Speech and Behavior:

If a student expresses the following thoughts, they are at risk and require immediate intervention:

  • Being a burden or feeling trapped
  • Experiencing unbearable pain
  • Having no reason to live
  • Wanting to kill themselves

If a student engages in the following behavior, they are at risk and require immediate intervention:

  • Increased drug or alcohol use
  • Reckless behavior
  • Withdrawal from activities and isolation from friends, family, etc.
  • Oversleeping or insomnia
  • Aggression
  • Giving away possessions or visiting/calling loved ones to say goodbye
  • Researching methods for committing suicide, including looking for materials or means

Signs of Suicidal Thoughts in Mood:

Suicidal ideation may look like other mental and emotional health conditions, as thoughts of suicide often occur in conjunction with another condition. If a student is considering suicide, it is likely they will display one or more of the following moods:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Apathy
  • Irritability
  • Humiliation
  • Rage

Suicide Prevention

If you or someone you know is showing signs of suicidal ideation, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text HELLO to the Crisis Text Line (741741). The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line can be accessed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Calls and texts are completely free of charge. All calls are confidential.

Professional and General Liability Insurance for School Counselors

Therapists, school counselors, and other mental health practitioners are at-risk for having potential claims of malpractice filed against them due to the sensitive nature of their responsibilities. School counselors could receive claims of a perceived failure to treat a student’s condition or a data breach of student files, for example. In order to protect yourself from the risk of potential claims, securing appropriate liability insurance is a critical career move.

If deemed to be responsible for the occurrence of damages, you could be forced to pay out-of-pocket if you don’t have proper insurance in place. This could significantly impact your personal financial security. NOW insurance provides mental health practitioners with coverage that will pay for a variety of costs including defense costs, damages, further investigations and accidents depending on your insurance policy. All practitioners whether employed or self-employed should secure professional liability (also known as medical malpractice) and if you are a therapist with your own practice, we recommend general liability insurance, too.

College students face an overwhelming amount of stress and anxiety due, sometimes, to a lack of coping skills or preparation for the workload and social pressures of college life. This has caused an increase in the demand for mental healthcare specialists. If you’re a therapist or counselor looking to take out a General Liability Insurance plan or other coverage, get a quote today from NOW Insurance in under 3 minutes with our easy online application. Insurance from NOW is simple, fast and affordable.

Contact us with questions about coverage.

Coverage type