Struggles Faced By Freshman College Students and The Effects on Mental Health
My journey through community college, transferring to a 4-year university and then-graduate school did come with challenges which played on my mind/psyche thus threatening my mental health. This blog post is to bring to light the typical challenges faced by first-time college students, to raise awareness on the threats to mental health and how to manage them and or get help.
New to this environment in July 2006, I was enrolled to start classes as a full-time student at a Community College in August 2006. Within a month, I had to get used to the new environment, Summer heat, learn how the buses operated, get basic information about how the school system operates, the programs/majors, how to register for classes, financial aid, classroom location..., etc.
How did I survive?! First, let’s look at what mental health is. According to MentalHealth.gov, “Mental Health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.” Factors which influence our mental health include family history, genetics, brain chemistry and life experiences. According to the National Alliance on Mental health, 1 in 4 students have a diagnosable mental illness, 40% do not seek help, 80% feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, and 50% become so anxious that they struggle to lead to dropout. Depression and anxiety are the most prevalent mental health illness in college student.
The three major areas I experienced challenges in, as well as observed my course mates and other students struggle with include; finances, choosing a major and conflict (outside situations) which are not directly school related but influenced my performance and mental health
Finances (The Most Important)
The National Student Financial Wellness Study (2014) revealed that 70% of college students are stressed about finances be it before getting into to college, while in college and post-graduation to the point that “it hurts their academic performance and health.” Not knowing how to handle finances or where to go for help was VERY stressful for me throughout the time I was in school from 2006 till I graduated in 2015 and had to start paying back the loans within six months of graduation with no potential job within that frame.
My suggestion to first-time college students will be to contact your school’s financial aid office as soon as possible and get ALL your questions answered. Find out about the work-study program and working on-campus. Working on campus is usually less stressful than off campus. If you are unable to get a job on campus, when seeking for an off campus job, try not to work more than 20 hours per week until you see how you handle your school load with most of your hours being on Friday and Saturday. At the very least, get a job even if it’s just 10 hours a week because it will help you manage your time. If you do not have any other thing to occupy you or challenge you besides school, there will be the tendency to procrastinate under the assumption that there is still time to do that assignment or review for a test or begin working on a school project in advance. And also, having a job allows you to earn $$$ which will help you better appreciate and manage the grants and loans. Also, discuss any questions/concerns with your parents/guardians and older siblings in addition to financial aid adviser.
Under the umbrella of financial aid falls grants and loans; then you have private loans and federal loans which you will have to pay back as opposed to grants. Find out about all the grants and tuition assistance you can qualify for and apply for them before going for loans. And when you apply for loans, you most likely will be offered way more than you need. Get a tuition and school supply estimate and ONLY take what you need after discussing with all those mentioned above. There will be a tendency to take all that is offered and once you have that much at your disposal, what may appear like “free money or easy money” will come back to haunt you when it’s payback time, and it could be depressing just looking at the figures increase as the semester unfolds. As you can see, there is A LOT to say on this topic so take it seriously!
Choosing a Major
High School graduates enter college with an idea of what their major will be, but as the first semester unfolds, the courses associated with the chosen major may not seem to be what they thought. This can get stressful and depressing especially when there is an outside expectation from family. This is where you make use of the career center and your academic advisor. The school may assign you an advisor based on your major. The career center may have assessments which help you identify how your personality and interest align with certain career choices; you get to see career growth projections, employment potential… etc. I had an academic adviser assigned by the department chair of the program I majored in and I also had a mentor whom I choose during my second semester at the community college based on my observation of how they interacted with students from the first semester, how passionate they were about their job and their devotion to helping students achieve their goals. I stayed in contact with my mentor even as I transferred to another school and still do till this day. Having an academic mentor separate from an adviser helps give you two different perspective which will help in decision making. Feeling undecided about a major is typical during the first semester and may even linger into the second semester. My suggestion will make use of your mentor, adviser, and career center as often as possible. Also look for opportunities to observe those working in the career field you aspire to pursue and or volunteer in the settings where they work. Landmarks to communicate with your mentor and or adviser and even with instructors whom you face difficulties in their course; right after the 1st test, before and after the midterm and before the final exam. Instructors do recognize students who make efforts, waiting to talk to an instructor towards the end of the semester about a grade is an indication of someone who wants an easy way out and once in the career field, there is no easy way out. Also, these people could be the ones to write letters of recommendation for you.
This could be a conflict with self and or with others which may not directly be related to school but will sure influence performance in school. Areas of conflict include; self-conflict, roommate conflict, relationship conflict and family conflict with regards to finances and or your major which are the two points mentioned above. This is a sensitive area as it deals with emotions and the mind/psyche. From personal experience, observation of others and reading a variety of books, emotional and psychological unrest are more stressful and easily leads to depression. Also, harder to deal with/manage compared to physical unrest. With physical unrest, taking a nap or exercising may help ease the unrest but not so much with emotional and psychological unrest.
Ways to manage stress; exercise 3-5 times per week for 30-60 minutes with high-intensity 2-3 times per week for about 30 minutes even if it’s just getting on the treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical and or Stairmaster; something is better than nothing. Eat as healthy as possible, drink water over sodas and juices, minimize or avoid high sugary, salty, or processed foods. Get as much sleep as possible, engage in leisure activities, nothing extravagant, something as simple as watching a movie, taking a walk outside, getting some early morning sunrise or sunset energy; that’s some free vitamin D! Find a school buddy or two who challenge you to be better, frequently meet and or communicate with them. Keep in touch with family and old friends. Sometimes there might be a need to talk to someone other than a family member or friend especially in the case of emotional and or psychological unrest, make use of your school counselor. You do not have to have a mental illness to see a counselor. Sometimes it helps just to write out your thoughts on paper if a counselor is not readily available.
Keep in mind that you HAVE to seek the help you need, seeking help is not a sign of weakness but strength. Speak up; a closed mouth does not get fed. You have to be willing to take that first step in acknowledging that you need help then get it and once you take that first step, everything else will fall into place. Make use of all the resources you have available to you, your school directory. Most resources are just a phone call or email away. They say, “the best things in life are free.” ;) :) Challenges are not to break you but to make you stronger, always look for that silver lining in what may seem to be the darkest clouds. Ever wonder why the stars only shine brightly at night?!
About the Writer:
Manekeu Ndoping, OTR/L; an Occupational Therapist. She obtained her Masters of Science in Occupational Therapy in August 2015, BSc in Psychology in January 2012.