Emotional Issues in College Life

Girl, at table, having trouble studying

The transition from high school to college is one of the milestones that mark one’s transition from childhood to adulthood.  For emotionally healthy young people, the transition is a challenge, positively met with plans, goals, and tests of their newfound independence.  For those with some emotional instability, the transition may compound brewing stress and anxiety, a crippling disadvantage that may outweigh any educational gains hoped for.  Before a student can take on the more demanding life college brings on, he must be in good physical, mental, and emotional shape to cope with inevitable triumphs and pitfalls coming his way from a new environment.

Common Mental Health Problems in College Students

Stress in college is the overwhelmingly huge trigger for mental health problems that may have been absent, hidden, or controlled during high school.  A May 20, 2013 article in the Guardian states, “Those who do experience mental health problems cite coursework deadlines (65%) and exams (54%) as triggers of distress.  Financial difficulties (47%), pressures about “fitting in” (27%) and homesickness (22%) also contribute to mental ill health.”

Common symptoms of mental illnesses plaguing a significant percentage of college students are:

  • Depression — the most pervasive problem among the other mental issues.  Depression can be dangerous as it carries the high risk of suicidal tendencies.  Depression should not be left untreated.  Students afflicted with depression must be aware of the triggers and symptoms and seek professional help in school if available or outside.
  • Anxiety Disorders — Seventy five percent of people who have had panic attacks, social phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and the like have had anxiety symptoms before the age of 22.  Anxiety can be debilitating when it morphs into extreme worry based on unrealistic perceptions.
  • Eating Disorders — Anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating are common eating disorders that affect more female than male students.
  • Self-Harm  — Cutting, burning, or banging one’s head for the purpose of inflicting pain are signals of deeper emotional disorders.
  • Substance Abuse — The abuse of alcohol, prescription drugs, or recreational drugs is also a pervasive phenomenon.  Even mentally healthy individuals may fall prey to a drug habit when they start using drugs to stay awake for exams or simply to have fun.  The danger of substance abuse is addiction, sexual promiscuity without safety measures, and even sexual assault.
  • Sleep Deprivation — Drugs, depression, or simply a radical change in lifestyle of which college life can bring on, can trigger insomnia.  Bad sleep habits and chronic sleep loss can exacerbate any mental or physical health condition and even dampen coping mechanisms of mentally healthy individuals.  Insomnia is also a symptom of depression and anxiety.  Students need to factor in their sleep as an important necessity, one as vital as food is.

What Parents Should Know

Any adolescent can develop a mental health problem.  The problem is, parents often think these problems happen to other people’s children, not their own.  It is important to ascertain that your child has the emotional and mental capability to weather the ups and downs of being on their own in college.

Studies are showing that the greatest impediment to success in college is emotional instability caused by depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.  For the majority of emotionally challenged students, emotional instability can spell missed opportunities in their academic and social milieu.  For some whose mental health is in a more dangerous or debilitating condition, their lives could be at stake if their issues remain unaddressed.  Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among the college populace.

It is important to catch the first signs of a deteriorating mental health so that symptoms can be easily reversed.  In such a case, communication, lifestyle changes, and treatment must be addressed in order to effect positive changes and boost coping mechanisms.

college mental issues

What Colleges Should Know

Colleges should be sensitive and alert to the fact that one in five of their student population may likely be suffering some form of mental health issue; but, only a rare few of their students actually avail of the university’s counselling services.  In fact, only a handful would probably admit that they are suffering from anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, impulse control issues, personality disorders, substance addiction, or other mental health problems.

In this regard, universities may need to seriously look into their current student services that aim to address mental health problems.  Are counselling services diverse enough to meet differing personal and psychological needs?  Expanding institutional services or creating partnerships and referral services outside the school to include those such as women’s health centres, spiritual or religious organizations, substance abuse clinics, and the like may be of huge help in boosting student morale and health.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

The human mind can be both fragile and tenacious, depending on whom it belongs to.  A seriously traumatic event may have different responses from individuals who have been exposed to it.  A person’s mind may be provoked towards high levels of stress while another individual may find ways to mitigate the experience.

Fighting a war, being a victim of rape or sexual abuse, witnessing a terrible crime, and being homeless after a flood are examples of traumatic events that can unhinge many people, mentally.  Post-traumatic stress disorder is usually the result of shock to one’s nervous system.

ptsd veteran

What Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Is

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a severe form of anxiety disorder caused by traumatic, frightening, or distressing events.  More often than not, purposeful violent acts cause more shock than do natural or accidental incidents although these account for many PTSD cases as well.

PTSD can manifest itself right after a traumatic event or take months, even years, to make itself known.  The response from each person varies and it is unclear why some individuals develop the disorder while others cope well enough to live normally after the stressful experience.

When the mind is assaulted with shock, it may numb itself as a coping mechanism then open itself to emotional and physical reactions later.  These reactions may include insomnia, nightmares, feeling upset, and others.  These are natural responses to trauma which normally takes the mind a short time to resolve.  In some people, however, their responses to trauma may continue for over a month or may show some time way later after the traumatic incident.  In this case, PTSD becomes a developing issue for which psychiatric intervention may be imperative.

PTSD disrupts lives and can cause a person to have marital problems, poor career and personal relations, and social isolation.  If not treated urgently, the disorder may deteriorate to include other issues such as depression, acute fear, memory disruptions, substance abuse, and self harm.

Signs of PTSD

It is important to recognize PTSD so that the root cause, not just the manifestations, may be addressed.  A person is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder when he is experiencing these three types of symptoms:

  • Reliving the Trauma

Trauma can leave behind a vivid footprint to plague the PTSD sufferer.  When a similar or unrelated event, object, or person, triggers intense memories, these often occur as flashbacks.          Flashbacks can seem so real that the afflicted may believe the event most feared is happening again.  A war veteran may react to an exploding firecracker as a gunshot or grenade explosion.  He     may experience intense fear, go into survival mode, or relive whatever emotions he had during a shoot-out.

Some of these intense memories may not even need a trigger.  These may come unbidden at any time, forcing the person to relive the trauma and experience the following:

  • nightmares
  • flashbacks or vivid images that jolt the person into thinking that his worst fears are happening again
  • intense distress at anything reminding the person of the trauma
  • physical symptoms such as sweating, pain, nausea, and tremors
  • feeling on edge
  • being easily angry, upset, or startled
  • lack of concentration or focus
  • insomnia and disturbed sleep patterns


  • Avoidance and Numbing

When someone experiences something bad, it is but natural to avoid things that remind him of it.  A PTSD victim however would avoid everything that smacks as a reminder of the traumatic           experience, part of which would be his memories.  Avoidance would constitute these behavioural symptoms:

  • keeping extremely busy
  • Avoidance of persons, places, things, events, and even sights, sounds, taste, and smells that remind the person of the traumatic incident.  People with PTSD may avoid watching a particular TV show or go anywhere near where the trauma took place.
  • using drugs or alcohol to numb the impact of memories or forget them

Numbing is another coping strategy of the mind that allows the person to cut off his feelings.  This emotional disconnection renders the person unable to be in touch with his feelings and to             express what he feels.  Sometimes the person literally forgets or refuses to talk about the major parts of the traumatic event.  A numb person experiences:

  • difficulty in empathising with others
  • difficulty showing or expressing affection
  • emotional desensitisation
  • social isolation


  • Arousal Symptoms

People suffering from PTSD have very heightened emotions and alertness.  Their emotions are aroused so that these individuals always seem to be on their guard.  Their chronic vigilance    causes them to experience:

  • constant tension
  • sudden bursts of anger, annoyance, and irritability
  • sleeping problems
  • difficulty keeping focus or concentration
  • being easily startled
  • panic when faced with reminders of the trauma, whether related to or not

People with PTSD often have difficulty functioning normally.  The syndrome is especially prevalent in war veterans who have more social, familial, and unemployment problems than many in the PTSD group.  Vietnam vets with post-traumatic stress for instance seem to struggle with keeping interpersonal relationships intact, holding down jobs, and reducing their propensity for violence.

PTSD can cause other mental health problems to crop up such as depression and other anxiety disorders.  It may cause physical or medical problems as well although research is still ongoing on this matter.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a treatable syndrome.  If you know anyone or are yourself undergoing acute stress from trauma, get professional help as soon as possible to help you come to terms with your trauma.  You cannot change your past but know that you can be in control of your present.      

PAT-E749-P.T.S.D. Not all wounds are visible

Self Harm:  Why People Do It

As difficult as it is for normal people to understand how someone would actually have the inclination and the craving to harm himself, it is a fact that many people turn to self destructive behaviour as a response to emotional or mental health issues.

self harmCutting is one type of self harm that deeply disturbed people have an addiction to.  When asking someone why one would deliberately cut and inflict pain on himself, you get answers that in themselves are puzzling.  Authors of some young adult books echo the variety of answers one gets when asking the inevitable question:  “Why do you do it?”

“In case you didn’t know, dead people don’t bleed.  If you can bleed-see it, feel it-then you know you’re alive.  It’s irrefutable, undeniable proof.  Sometimes I just need a little reminder.”

Amy Efaw, After

“She felt so much emotionally, she would say, that a physical outlet – physical pain – was the only way to make her internal pain go away.  It was the only way she could control it.”

Richelle Mead, Vampire Academy

“The fear of an unknown never resolves, because the unknown expands infinitely outward, leaving you to cling pitifully to any small shelter of the known: a cracker has twelve calories; the skin, when cut, bleeds.”

Caroline Kettlewell, Skin Game

One thing is for sure.  Cutting is a person’s desperate plea that an insurmountable psychological problem needs to be addressed.  A person who cuts himself is trying to run from emotional pain by diverting his attention to physical pain.

What is Self Harm?

Self harm encompasses many forms or ways people inflict damage on their physical and mental health in order to deal with deep-seated emotional problems.  Although suicide is never the intention of a person addicted to self destructive behaviour, death or permanent disability can result from their actions.

There are many ways people choose to cause the pain and the subsequent rush they crave:

  • Cutting — Slicing skin is the most common form.
  • Poisoning / overdosing on drugs / alcoholism
  • Anorexia or bulimia
  • Burning skin
  • Hitting head or other parts of the body
  • Scratching
  • Hair pulling
  • Extreme exercising
  • Needlessly putting one’s self in high risk situations
  • Inserting things in the body

Self Harm vs. Suicide

When “self-harmers” think of inflicting pain or damage on themselves, their purpose is not usually to kill themselves.  Their actions are intended to make physical pain relieve them from insurmountable emotional pain.  This is not to say of course that a person who self harms does not think of suicide; some do, but the compulsion for the moment is to feel physical hurt or momentary emotional pleasure (in case of alcoholism, drug abuse), not die.

Why Do People Engage in Self Harm?

For many, their reasons are ambiguous.  Some feel emotionally numb so physical pain makes them feel alive.  Others find the control they seek in being able choose and inflict the severity of hurtrisk factors for self harm they impose on themselves.

The deviant practice of self harm brings an even darker side (yes, there’s worse):  addiction.

Addiction is a very compelling reason why people would choose to hurt themselves again and again. Among cutters and self mutilators, the drug of choice is pain.  To a mentally unhealthy mind, pain can be perceived as a cleansing agent, a purifier of bad feelings and thoughts.  Pain can also double as an alleviator of boredom, an anger diffuser, or a justified self punishment.

Nothing however can turn into an addiction without the reward of pleasure that it brings.  Much like intense exercise that brings out the feel-good hormone, endorphins, tolerable pain perversely also encourages the production of endorphins.  Over time, your brain builds up a tolerance to pain just as it does when it is constantly subjected to alcohol and tranquilizers.  The self-harmer is then forced to ramp up the severity of harm they inflict on themselves in order to feel the level of pain they desire.  So, they cut deeper or pull out hair in greater clumps.

People who engage in self harm often are not out to seek attention.  The opposite is actually true.  People who harm themselves go through great lengths to hide their self inflicted damage because of shame, guilt, alienation, and the inevitable judgement of others around them.  It is therefore important to be respectful and compassionate when dealing with people with self-destructive behaviours.

What to Do about the Compulsion for Self Harm

  • Seek qualified, professional help  — A psychiatrist, doctor, psychologist, or counsellor is trained to help people with self destructive tendencies.  They may tailor certain therapies such as dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to the individual’s needs and situation.  Certain medications may also be prescribed.
  • Talk to qualified respondents online or on the phone — For people who are not ready for a face-to-face encounter, online and phone support services such as Get Connected offer help free of charge.
  • Talk to someone you trust — If you are a self-harmer, it is important that you have someone you can pour your heart out to.  That someone will have your interests in mind; so, listen to his or her advice with an open mind.
  • Know the triggers — Know what ignites that drive toward self destructive behaviour.  Knowing what sparks the urges can help one keep away or control harmful behaviour.
  • Help one’s self and try different approaches — Each person is different; so what works for one may not work for another.  One must continue to seek the best coping strategies.  The more alternatives he finds, the better are his chances of winning over his addiction.