Common Mental Health Disorders in College Students


Starting college is a major life milestone. While this is a cause for excitement, it can also be a major source of stress. You must adapt to living away from home and completing your coursework with less guidance from parents and teachers. All of these stressors can add up. It’s no wonder college is also a time when mental health disorders tend to develop.

Here are some of the most common mental health disorders that develop in college, and how to get help if you’re struggling.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety can take many different forms. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) causes people to worry excessively for vague or unidentifiable reasons, while social anxiety disorder triggers dread in social situations. Here are some other conditions that are classified as anxiety disorders:

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

All college students experience anxiety for periods of time. However, those with an anxiety disorder have severe and consistent symptoms that interfere with their daily lives.  


Students struggling with depression may experience a range of symptoms, including:

  • Low energy
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Constantly feeling sad, hopeless, and/or worthless
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Not feeling interested in activities you normally enjoy
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Thinking about death and/or suicide

Depending on the severity of depression, students may find they cannot function normally. This often leads to academic struggles, conflicts with roommates and friends, and withdrawing from loved ones.

Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is a serious condition that revolves around food, weight, appearance, and exercise. The main types of eating disorders are:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Binge eating disorder

Anorexia is characterized by restricted food intake and excessive exercise. Those struggling with bulimia may eat a large amount of food and then try to compensate through purging methods such as exercise, vomiting, or laxatives. And people with binge eating disorder have frequent episodes of binge eating where they consume a large amount of food and then feel guilty or depressed afterwards.

A common misconception is that eating disorders are a choice. In reality, they are a dangerous mental health condition. In fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder.

Substance Abuse and Addiction

Our culture places a big emphasis on partying and having fun in college. Unfortunately, this includes binge drinking and drug use on some campuses. Students may start abusing substances for many reasons:

  • Cope with stress
  • “Fit in” with their peers
  • Have “fun” at a party
  • Self-medicate a mental health disorder

When students abuse substances in order to cope with a mental health condition, they may be struggling with co-occurring disorders.

Suicidal Thoughts

Although suicidal thoughts are not considered a mental health disorder, they can indicate an underlying disorder. Students may also have suicidal thoughts in response to overwhelming stress, traumatic events, and other negative experiences.

Many students are reluctant to talk about suicide because they fear stigma and judgment. It’s important to be aware of the signs that someone is suicidal. These can include:

  • Persistent low mood
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Withdrawing from friends and loved ones
  • Making preparations such as giving away possessions or saying goodbye to loved ones
  • Suddenly feeling happy after a period of depression
  • Researching or obtaining the means to commit suicide, for example, buying a gun or drugs
  • Talking about death or dying, or explicitly threatening suicide

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals ages 10 to 34. This makes it a very serious mental health problem among young adults.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), or 911 if the situation is an emergency.

Causes of Mental Health Disorders in College Students

Mental health disorders are complex illnesses with many potential causes. Researchers have identified certain risk factors that make it more likely for someone to develop a mental health condition. These include genetics, environment, stressful life events, and trauma.

Why Do These Disorders Start During College?

The transition to college life can act as a trigger for mental health disorders. This is why it’s common for individuals to first start experiencing symptoms in college. Students need to cope with a lot of new stressors at once:

  • Moving away from home and living with roommates
  • Leaving behind family and friends
  • Making new friends
  • Juggling multiple classes and a heavier workload
  • Effectively managing their time
  • Deciding what career to pursue

For students who are already at risk for a mental health disorder, these stressors can cause new or worsening symptoms.

How to Get Help for Mental Health Concerns in College

If you start experiencing mental health symptoms in college, you should reach out for help as soon as the symptoms appear. Leaving a mental health condition untreated can worsen its effects and disrupt your life.

Here are some ways to get help:

  • Contact your school’s counseling center and make an appointment with a therapist there
  • Look for peer support groups or resources on campus
  • Talk to a trusted person on-campus such as a professor, friend, classmate or mentor
  • Contact a local community mental health clinic
  • Ask counseling services to provide a referral to a local therapist or treatment program

If you are attending school in Pennsylvania, consider working with The Light Program. We treat all types of mental health disorders in teens and adults. Although our treatment centers are located across eastern Pennsylvania, anyone living in the state can participate in our online therapy programs. Teletherapy is a great option for college students since you can access a session from your phone or computer and don’t have to travel to a treatment center.

Call us at (610) 644-6464 to learn more about our programs or schedule an appointment.

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