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A Therapist Turned Psychology Professor Reveals 7 Strategies to Protect Your Mental Health This Academic Year

Dr. Kristen Lee swapped her therapy room for the classroom to bring much-needed attention to the college mental health crisis — and solutions to help students thrive.

Iryna Kalamurza / Shutterstock
Iryna Kalamurza / Shutterstock

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

The whirlwind of college demands at every level of study, from freshman year all the way to Ph.D. life, can feel excruciating. There’s the constant push. The perpetual state of adjustment. Never-ending checklist. Rare downtime. It’s like a perpetual Whac-A-Mole game — the moment a challenge or task is conquered, another pops up.

I felt a strong pull to step into higher education a decade ago. My therapy practice was booming — and I wished it wasn’t (I’m in the one field where you wish you’d go out of business due to low demand). Droves of college students were arriving at my door, marinating in anxiety and self-doubt. Tuition was a fortune. There weren’t enough jobs to go around. Their mental health was suffering. 

Fast forward 10 years later. Stakes are even higher. The exorbitant cost of education and the volatility of the market are creating widespread distress. Well before stepping onto campus, students are lambasted with messages egging them on to hyper-perform. Set your eyes on your top-tier college. Get perfect grades. Ace the standardized test. Take as many AP classes as humanly possible. Be well-rounded. Play as many sports and instruments as you can in between volunteering and co-curriculars. Amass likes on your feed that’s stacked with carefully curated, glamorous pictures. 

The angst is just as real for students returning to the classroom to complete degrees or pursue advanced degrees. There’s the juggling of family and work. The need for constant upskilling. Pressure to stay relevant when relevant is always changing. To create a compelling personal brand and legacy. Hopes and dreams are on the line.

I eventually left my therapy room and entered the classroom because I knew the same things being discussed behind closed doors needed public attention. That students at every level need to be reminded that they are human beings, not human doings. That “success” isn’t success without mental health. That while grades and scores and trophies and accomplishments have their time and place, they pale in comparison to peace of mind. 

Since then, I’ve gone on to research college mental health and have taken a public platform on what institutions can do to create a culture of help-seeking and help-giving. I’ve joined the Active Minds Speakers Bureau, where as a faculty member, I not only share data and strategies, but openly describe my own struggles with perfectionism, anxiety and depression. I’ve also designed a course I now teach on stress and resilience to help students examine their beliefs and behaviors, and develop a strategic well-being plan that helps them avoid the trappings of overachievement and hyper-performance permeating writ large.

Here are seven strategies combined from my clinical, research, classroom, and own lived experience:

1. Prioritize mental health.

Your mental health is everything. It’s more important than grades, test scores, likes on your feed, the clubs you belong to, the trophies you earn, your promotion, or any other “success” you are able to achieve. Self-neglect has a cumulative effect, leading to erosion of well-being. Protecting your mental health needs to be an absolute priority. 

2. Practice consistent self-care. Small things make a big difference. Self-care is a process of deliberate focus on activities that provide respite and restoration from intensive demands. It starts with giving yourself permission to take time away from your checklist to make time for your needed breaks. Research shows that even small daily rituals can positively impact our well-being. Self-care activities can include artistic expression, time with friends, time in nature, and mindfully enjoying the present moment without worrying about what’s happened or what’s to come. It also involves lifestyle medicine practices, such as sleep, nutrition, hydration and exercise.

3. Break up with perfectionism and social comparison. Research is revealing a 33 percent increase in perfectionism over the past 10 years, with social comparison as a driving force. In our Instagram world, we are constantly nudged to compare ourselves, leading to angst and depression. Research show that perfectionism can quickly spiral into strivings that become unhealthy. While a spirit of healthy competitiveness can be motivating, it’s vital to engage in nurturing self-talk versus that which is dominated by your toxic inner critic. It can contribute to impostor syndrome — the feeling that you’re a phony, fraud, or wannabe and that you don’t really deserve your spot. 

4. Expect turmoil. Anything worth doing will be hard. Brace yourself for trials — not in a fatalistic, self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way, but one that recognizes that life is difficult, and stress is a natural response. Sometimes we freak out about freaking out, making matters worse. Whether you are a freshman in a dorm, or engaged in a rigorous graduate program, it’s important to avoid personalizing your challenging emotions and reactions, and instead to recognize that college life can trigger intense reactions. 

5. Take a stand for justice and equity. Mental health challenges and imposter syndrome are disproportionately higher for international students, first-generation students and underrepresented students who face systemic barriers because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, and religion, requiring not only intentional response by those experiencing greater risk, but action on the part of institutions to help mitigate ism’s and oppressive systemic injustice to create more inclusive, equitable, welcoming spaces. If you are part of a privileged group(s), find ways to be an ally. If you are part of an underrepresented group(s), find allies and spaces where your voice can be uplifted. Intersectionality — the empathy amongst and between varied social identity groups experiencing similar forms of being othered — can help us common ground and advocate collectively. Intersectionality is a powerful force that can help mitigate the college and global mental health crisis.

6. Find community. Learning, healing and growth all happen within community, not isolation. Isolation can quickly erode mental health. Loneliness is being called “the new smoking-the health risk of our modern life, where we are more connected and disconnected than ever before. Relationships are protective factors that build resilience. The biggest lie that depression, anxiety and imposter syndrome can tell us is that we’re the only ones. Stigma remains the number one barrier to persistence in college, and of the 65 percent of students who leave due a mental health crisis, only 50 percent report their condition. It’s crucial to find people you can safely and openly share with to curb self-doubt and co-create spaces for healing, community, and solidarity. 

7. Proactively seek therapy. When I was in graduate school, it was strongly recommended to be in therapy. I did so during both my master’s and doctoral studies, and immediately after I took on my full-time faculty position. Even when we do not feel we are on the brink, prevention is less costly than repair. If you know you are under a lot of demands and that you tend to be hard on yourself, having a trusted, licensed therapist with expertise in evidence-based modalities, such as cognitive behavioral treatment can be a game changer. You can find a therapist and therapeutic resources who fits your distinctive needs through your University counseling center, primary care physician, health insurance company, Employee Assistance Program (EAP), word of mouth, and referrals from reputable organizations such as the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, Active Minds, or Psychology Today. Remember that if you have a documented mental health condition, by law you are eligible for accommodations.

While students can practice these evidence-based principles, it does not leave institutions off the hook. The issues of today are complex. Individual strategies can only take us so far. Institutions must prioritize these strategies at every level of study, for all students.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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