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Five to thrive: Tips for protecting college students’ mental health

College students are experiencing profound mental health effects from the isolation and disruption caused by the pandemic. Their universities and colleges must support them, and students also can help themselves with simple tools.

Depression, anxiety and burnout are on the rise among college students after a school year of isolation. Between August 2020 and April 2021, we tracked nearly 1,100 Ohio State students, asking them about their mental health and how they were coping in the pandemic. In summer 2020, 40% of students we surveyed screened positive for burnout; by April 2021, that number had risen to 71%. Depression and anxiety among students also increased, and the survey showed a rise in unhealthy coping habits such as eating unhealthy foods, smoking or vaping, and alcohol use. Similar data from student bodies across the United States makes it clear. Students are experiencing profound effects on their mental health in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students who are struggling should know they are not alone — many others are experiencing similar challenges. It is important for them to seek help for themselves, and for universities to shift from responding to student mental health crises to taking a preventative stance toward mental health. At Ohio State, we have created several initiatives to do that.

While this academic year looks different from the last with a return to in-person learning, students still face a great deal of stress, anxiety and uncertainty. They may feel socially awkward or inadequate after a year at home, and they may not know how to reach out for help. They may be languishing.

If you are a student this year, or if one of your loved ones has headed back to campus, take heart: Students can reduce stress and protect their mental health with simple tools. All students can benefit from bolstering their resilience and identifying resources that can help in a crisis. It is important, too, for students coming to college with known mental health issues to advocate for their needs and self-care. Here are “five to thrive” tools that can help students protect themselves.

Establish healthy habits that work for you.

Physical health and stress reduction are important for good mental health. Schedule stress reduction, physical activity, sleep and healthy eating just as you schedule your classes and homework time. If you take medication, set a timer on your phone to remind you to take it daily.

Build resilience and coping skills.

There are many ways you can build your resilience, and your school may have resources to help you. Mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing, meditation and yoga can help you deal with stress. Learn to master negative thoughts with cognitive behavioral techniques. Studies also show that a dose of vitamin G — gratitude — can greatly improve your outlook. Learn more about building resilience.

Find local mental health support.

Explore your school’s resources and locate counseling services, a primary care provider and pharmacy before you need them. If you had an individualized educational plan (IEP) in high school, ask your former school to send it to the disability services office on your campus. Find out what counseling services are offered through your health insurance plan.

Grow and maintain support systems.

Making new friendships takes time, so start right away. Get involved in campus life, meet new people and connect with positive people in your life.

Don’t wait to get help.

Seek professional health immediately if your symptoms or emotions are affecting your concentration or functioning. Add the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to your contacts: 800-273-8255.

About the author

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Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk

Bernadette Mazurek Melnyk is vice president for health promotion, university chief wellness officer, dean and Helene Fuld Health Trust Professor of Evidence-based Practice in the College of Nursing, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry in the College of Medicine and executive director of the Helene Fuld Health Trust National Institute for Evidence-based Practice in Nursing and Healthcare.