Back to school: Pursuing dreams, learning new things, and…leaving the only support system you’ve ever known!?
For many of those around age 18, back to school this year means packing up and heading to college and living away from home for the first time. This transition can be tough because it involves adapting to a lot of change all at once.
Your college courses may be more rigorous than anything you experienced in high school; there’s a great deal of pressure to succeed; and you’re in a place where virtually everything—from the paths you walk to the people you meet—are brand-new.
In the midst of such immense change, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. What’s most important is to keep a pulse on your mental health during this period and create healthy expectations. As a professional counselor at Texas A&M University, I’ve seen what works well for thousands of students. Here are four ways to promote your mental well-being and thrive during your freshman year:
1. Recognize you’re not alone
Whether it’s movies about college or anecdotes from your older friends, college is often painted as non-stop fun: meeting new friends, parties every weekend, and joining different clubs. While you will find enjoyment in this new phase of life, it’s certainly not always fun. Homesickness, anxiety, and depression are all common experiences as well, especially as students adjust to college life during their first year.
Over 60 percent of college students experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months and 40 percent reported being affected by depression. No matter what emotions you’re experiencing, you are not the only one feeling that way.
I often witness something called “duck syndrome.” You may feel like you’re the only one struggling, because you look around and you see other students, or ducks in this metaphor, gliding by. What you don’t see is they’re feverishly paddling underneath the surface and working so hard to keep up that “gliding” façade.
Reach out to your roommate, a new friend you feel like you can trust, or your local counseling center whenever you need to talk. Sometimes, just being honest about the way you feel can provide some relief and prompt others to open up as well. If you’re looking for something more anonymous, the Sanvello community can be a great place to find support.
2. Give up perfection
Sometimes the students who struggle the most in college are those who excelled in high school. They’re used to being high achievers, juggling a heavy course load and a host of extracurriculars with ease. Now, they’re surrounded by people like them, without the traditional support system that supported their success, and taking on things like navigating a large campus, doing laundry, and making meals.
It’s important to create healthy expectations for yourself and a balance that you can achieve, especially as a freshman. Consider choosing courses at a mix of difficulty levels, joining just 1-3 extracurricular activities to start, and building in downtime. That could be time to spend with friends, hit the gym, zone out with a good book or album, or just take a nap.
Set yourself up for success by creating a routine that works well for you—a solid structure to replace the one you had living at home. With this foundation, it will be easier to maintain healthy habits and nurture your mental health.
3. Reach out to resources
Many students won’t reach out for help until they’re in a situation of crisis. They’re climbing up, up, up a mountain and finally hit the peak of stress. They come sliding back, and the emotions fill in like an avalanche.
We want to avoid hitting that peak and feeling the weight of an avalanche, so explore the mental health resources on campus well before you think you may need them. Make note of the resources available on your campus, and don’t be afraid to reach out and use them when you need it. We’re here to help you!
4. Check in on others
On my campus, it’s not uncommon to hear choruses of “hey, how are y’all?” as students pass each other on the sidewalks. While it sounds awfully friendly, the problem is students often don’t stop long enough to actually hear the response!
When it comes to mental health, peer-to-peer support can be one of the most powerful and effective resources. I encourage you to check in on your roommates and friends in a meaningful way: “How are you doing, really?” You may be able to speak to your own experiences in a way that helps them; benefits they may have never realized if you didn’t take the time to ask and show you genuinely care.
It may seem small, but just asking about those around you, sharing stories, and giving advice on resources is key to creating a healthy campus community that lifts up one another.
College is a journey
You’re going to have ups and downs as you navigate this chapter of life. It’s not a linear path from teen to successful adult for any of us. What’s important to keep top of mind is that you’re not alone, there’s no such thing as perfection, and there are resources—from the new people you meet to your friendly local counseling center (wink)—to help guide and support you.
By Danielle Pompili, MA, Ed.M, LPC
Danielle is a Licensed Professional Counselor and has worked with a wide array of university students for the past seven years. Currently, she is a staff clinician at the Texas A&M University Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). She obtained her Ed.M & MA in mental health counseling from Teacher’s College – Columbia University, and undergraduate degree in psychology from University at Albany (SUNY). Danielle is passionate about supporting students and believes that every person, if given the proper supports, can find a path to their own personal success. She appreciates the unique gifts and capacities of all students and strives to advocate for and empower students.