3 Mental Health Coping Strategies for College Students

College students are in the midst of a mental health crisis. This psychologist's mental health coping strategies can help students flourish.

portrait of Gregg Henriques, Ph.D.
by Gregg Henriques, Ph.D.

Updated February 3, 2022

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3 Mental Health Coping Strategies for College Students


In the late 1980s, about 10-15% of the U.S. population had what professionals might call clinically significant mental health conditions. Now, that figure is more like 25-35%.

Over the last three decades, there's been close to a threefold rise in mental health conditions. Given the toll that stress and other mental health conditions can take on individuals, this increase constitutes a mental health crisis among our youth — particularly among college students.

Mental Health Conditions Are Rising Among Students

Data from the annual Healthy Minds Study indicates that college students are exhibiting increasing rates of mental health conditions. Between 2014 and 2021, rates of anxiety among college students rose 14 percentage points (20% vs. 34%), while rates of depression rose 21 percentage points (20% vs. 41%).

At the same time, we're seeing changes in how students approach mental health, including an increased willingness to seek therapy and/or counseling.

The biggest shift in mental health concerns among college students lies in anxiety and related conditions, including increased stress, heightened mental vigilance, and the inability to cope with life challenges. We're also seeing growing rates of suicidal behavior and general self-harm.

Both undergraduate and graduate students report similarly high rates of mental health conditions. That said, some research indicates that graduate students may experience more mental health challenges due to feeling pressured to produce a higher volume of work and the difficulty in achieving work-life balance.

Finally, it's important to note that obstacles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have likely contributed to the more recent rise in mental health conditions among students.

3 Mental Health Coping Mechanisms for Students

College students experience an array of mental health conditions, such as burnout and stress, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Here are a few basic mental health coping strategies students can use to promote good mental health.

1. Regularly Check In With Yourself

College students should routinely take time to conduct an honest, thoughtful, and reflective assessment of themselves. This check-in process involves asking questions like the following:

Part of maintaining good mental health means thinking about these questions. If you're unsure how to answer them, consider taking a well-being assessment.

2. Use the Three A's

In terms of how to deal with anxiety and/or depression, it can be helpful to use the three A's:

Awareness is all about increasing your understanding about what's happening, especially regarding your feelings, thoughts, actions, and relationships. Acceptance refers to being able to hold and tolerate negative feelings and distressing situations in a measured and mindful way. Lastly, active change means trying new things, even when it may be difficult to do so.

If you have a mental health condition, I invite you to work on increasing awareness of who you are and the negative emotions you're experiencing, including where they come from and how to respond to them.

I also recommend raising your capacity for acceptance. This includes acceptance of painful feelings and past losses. You can similarly increase your engagement with things, other people, and the world in general — even if your first instinct is to avoid and withdraw.

These steps can be difficult to take. You may want to consider therapy, talking with a loved one, self-help, or a combination of support systems and resources.

3. Practice Mindfulness With CALM MO

Students facing conflict and other negative emotions in their lives can use the acronym CALM MO to help them overcome mental health challenges. This idea relates to psychological mindfulness.

CALM refers to the observer's attitude, which we can all work to cultivate. "C" stands for curiosity, which might lead to important questions such as "What is going on?" and "What am I feeling and why might I be feeling this way?"

Curiosity
Acceptance
Loving
Motivation

Meta-Cognitive
Observer

"A" stands for acceptance, meaning your acceptance of feelings, experiences, situations, and other people. "L" signifies an attitude of loving compassion for oneself and for others, while "M" is for motivation toward valued states of being.

Finally, the MO part stands for meta-cognitive observer, or the ability to shift the focus of our attention to how we're thinking and feeling.

When I work with others, I help them develop these mental health coping skills. That way when stress occurs, they know to activate the CALM MO stance.


Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a professor of graduate psychology at James Madison University and a clinical psychologist who writes about the college student mental health crisis.


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