Anxiety in College Students: Causes, Statistics & How Universities Can Help
Anxiety and depression are the two most common reasons that students seek mental health services, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health 2017 Annual Report from Penn State University. While the incidence of all other mental illnesses reported by college students has declined or remained flat, these two mental health conditions have shown year-over-year increases.
Many types of anxiety disorders can afflict college students. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of anxiety include nervousness, unease, a sense of impending danger or doom, sweating and trembling, inability to maintain focus, uncontrollable worry, and insomnia. Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by feelings of restlessness, fatigue, and difficulty maintaining focus, according to the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Anxiety is present in such specialized disorders as phobia-related illnesses caused by an inordinate fear of certain items or situations, such as germs or confined spaces.
Anxiety is similar to other mental health illnesses in being difficult for diagnosticians to identify and sufferers to acknowledge. People experiencing chronic anxiety often avoid places and activities that may trigger these feelings, which negatively affects their quality of life. They often downplay the impact of anxiety on their day-to-day lives, or they simply may not realize they are dealing with a potentially serious mental health condition.
However, here are some tips to help effectively treat anxiety which can enable a person afflicted with the disorder to live a normal, healthy life. This guide explores the causes and symptoms of anxiety in college students, as well as current and long-term health impacts from the condition and the ways universities are helping students who suffer from anxiety.
Facts and Statistics About Anxiety in College Students
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2017, more than 18 million students were enrolled in college in the U.S. According to figures compiled by Statista, nearly three out of four of these students have experienced a sense of “overwhelming anxiety” at some time, and just under 30% report having felt overwhelming anxiety in the previous two weeks. Here are other statistics that examine the impact of anxiety on college students.
Prevalence of Anxiety in College Students
That so many college students are affected by anxiety is not surprising. Students often have to manage heavy loads of coursework, in addition to participating in extracurricular activities and holding part-time or full-time jobs. Students must also cope with the stress of choosing a new career based on their education goals. Despite anxiety being so prevalent among college students, university officials may not be aware of the damage anxiety can cause to students, nor know how to properly address the disorder.
Anxiety is prevalent among college students in part because they are in the midst of a major life transition. Lois M. Collins writes in the Deseret News that “college students may have a unique vulnerability because mental illness often appears amid the transition from childhood to adulthood.” The everyday stresses and demands of the academic environment also contribute to students’ feelings of anxiety.
Additional Mental Health Afflictions College Students May Experience
In addition to anxiety, college students may suffer from other mental health conditions. It is understandable for college students to feel sad or anxious on occasion, but the feelings usually pass in a matter of days. Depression and anxiety may cause these negative emotions to persist and affect all aspects of the student’s life, however. The Mayo Clinic describes “college depression” not as a separate clinical diagnosis but rather as the onset of depression that starts during college. Symptoms of “college depression” include persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, angry outbursts, loss of interest in hobbies and activities, and a sense of worthlessness.
Students with mental health disorders may face unique challenges during their time on campus. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, adults who have schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are more likely to drop out of college than those who do not have a psychiatric diagnosis. Other mental health conditions that college students may suffer from include eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse disorders.
Anxiety’s Effects After Students Leave College
Beyond the short-term effects of anxiety, the condition can have a long-term impact on college students, sometimes extending long after they’ve graduated. The Mayo Clinic notes that generalized anxiety disorder can precede other mental health problems, or it may worsen a preexisting health condition, such as headaches and migraines, heart disease, and chronic pain.
Additionally, anxiety can play a role in a person’s recovery from another illness. Writing for Johns Hopkins Medicine, Una McCann, MD, describes how anxiety can impair a person’s recovery from a heart attack by interfering with the patient’s prescribed medications or preventing sleep during recovery, among other complications. “Anxiety disorders come with a high degree of fear and uncertainty,” Dr. McCann writes. “When this fear and uncertainty keep the heart attack or heart disease patient from following the advice and treatment plan of their cardiologist, it can have a major impact on recovery.”
Treatment and Support for Anxiety in College Students
Although anxiety is a serious mental health condition, effective treatments are available to prevent the condition from impairing the education of a college student. The resources described here help students overcome anxiety and lead a happier, healthier life.
University Mental Health Resources
In conjunction with on-campus clinics and hospitals that provide the full gamut of health services to students, faculty, staff, and the community, most colleges and universities offer a range of mental health services geared specifically to the needs of students. For example, The Center for Student Wellbeing at Duquesne University offers free, confidential University Counseling Services to enrolled students to help them overcome anxiety and deal with other mental health conditions. Additionally, the university offers a crisis support line, therapy groups, and workshops that give students the opportunity to discuss their problems as a component of their recovery. The Duquesne Wellbeing Resources page offers tips and links to sources for more information about anxiety, stress, depression, and sleep disorders, among other mental health topics.
However, many universities struggle to provide their students with robust mental health services. Students often have to cut through red tape within the institution, and funding such programs and initiatives becomes increasingly difficult in light of the continual belt-tightening at most schools. As Caroline Simon writes in USA Today, demand for mental health services for college students is increasing at a time when scarce resources make it nearly impossible for schools to hire sufficient counselors to meet the demand. The result is students having to wait weeks before a counselor is available, or once treatment starts, students may be limited to a set number of sessions with the counselor.
External Health Clinics
College students facing anxiety may find that the resources offered by mental health clinics outside their campus community provide the most effective treatment for their conditions. The resources include consulting with mental health practitioners operating in public health facilities and in private offices.
The Mayo Clinic describes potential treatment options for individuals who suffer from anxiety: psychotherapy, medications, clinical trials, lifestyle coaching, home remedies, support groups, behavior modification, and alternative medicine, such as herbal and dietary supplements. College students who have health insurance through their school or another provider may receive therapy or medications through the mental health services of their insurers.
Support Groups for Students with Anxiety
College students suffering from anxiety may find relief by discussing the progress of their recovery with others who have the same condition or other firsthand experience with anxiety. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) provides an extensive directory of support groups for individuals dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues. Students who would like to start an anxiety support group to help their peers will find instructions for doing so on the ADAA Start a Support Group page.
Tips for Addressing Anxiety in College Students
Anxiety in college students goes far beyond the typical worrying about picking a major or cramming for a final exam. The illness can be debilitating, preventing students from completing their studies and affecting them long after they have left school. Anxiety impacts millions of individuals across the country, but the symptoms and effects of the disorder on a given individual are unique. Understanding the wide-ranging effects of anxiety enables faculty, staff, and other students to recognize the full scope of the illness and empathize with those afflicted by it.
Anxiety is an Illness that Needs to Be Taken Seriously
Even with the growing awareness of the detrimental impact of anxiety, college students may find that peers and instructors do not take their battle with anxiety seriously. More outreach is required to ensure that those suffering from the illness receive proper treatment. The Mayo Clinic Anxiety Disorders page provides helpful tips for coping with anxiety, such as discovering what may trigger stress in a person, learning time management techniques, devising an individualized treatment plan, and strictly following the treatment plan.
It may not be immediately apparent to college students when a peer is suffering from anxiety. The behavior and other symptoms characteristic of an anxiety disorder may be perceived by others as strange or bizarre. It is also difficult for students who have experienced the normal, everyday stress and anxiety of college life to fully comprehend the debilitating effects of a full-blown anxiety disorder.
Because anxiety symptoms and effects vary from person to person, effective treatment starts by acknowledging the potential severe impact the illness can have on a person. It is counterproductive to downplay the seriousness of the malady by labeling the symptoms as nothing more than standard “jitters.”
Helping Students Overcome Anxiety Begins with Support
Anxiety is a widespread mental health condition that is also one of the most misunderstood. By showing your support for students who suffer from anxiety, you let them know that they are not alone in their struggle. Remind these students that they are welcome in the campus community, whether by attending an anxiety support group with a peer who has anxiety or by starting a support group or organization on campus. All will be rewarded by sharing in the contributions these students make to society once they return to health and begin their careers.