Now that the school year is approaching, college students all over are making sure they have everything they need to go back to campus. However, many students don’t think about what tools they need to support their mental health as they prepare to move to campus. Here are some tips for students and parents for this back-to-school season.

Six mental health tips for college students

1. Create a routine
This first step is crucial to maintaining your mental health. Having a routine will help you remain consistent in your schedule and fight any feelings of not having a purpose. This routine will create stability and help you start your day with consistency. It can also help you establish good habits of self-control and discipline, keys to success that are helpful even later in life. Routines can help us stay grounded in our everyday lives.

Try to have breakfast and dinner around the same time each day and go to bed at the same time every night, this not only offers comfort and consistency, but it makes life feel easier.

2. Find your people: join clubs or find people similar interests
Everyone tells freshmen to join clubs their first year, but this advice applies to all students. Introduce yourself to your neighbors and invite them to join you for dinner at the dining hall. Come up with some facts you can share about yourself and some questions you can ask others. Don’t hesitate to join new clubs and enjoy the activities your college has to offer. While this may seem like cliche advice, it works. By joining clubs, you can start building strong relationships and make new friends to prevent feeling lonely on a big campus. Friendships are often forged when spending consistent time together working toward a common goal, talking about life and identifying shared interests while focused on a task or activity.

You can also find a mentor or upperclassmen to guide you throughout your college career. They can provide tailored advice for your specific school.

For students of color entering a big predominantly white institution (PWI), finding multicultural clubs to meet people where your culture is shared and celebrated can also make college feel more welcoming.

3. Prioritize good physical health
Prioritize getting a consistent amount of sleep at night and maintaining regular sleep and wake times. As a college student, your mind must be functioning efficiently. Without enough sleep, your academic performance may decline, and you could fall behind in your studies, which adds more stress. Students with poor sleep habits may also begin to withdraw from their friends and events and their moods can become depressed.

To focus on good health habits, build exercise time into your schedule. Set a goal of getting at least 3-4 days of exercise a week aside from walking throughout campus. After a good workout, you may feel refreshed and energized, finding it easier to focus your attention on work. Exercise also contributes to better sleep.

Lastly, maintain a healthy diet to avoid feeling sluggish during the day. Avoid skipping meals – opt to at least eat small, healthy snacks instead of going prolonged periods without eating. Going to the diner or cafeteria with others is also a great opportunity to socialize.

4. Set goals
Set realistic, specific and achievable goals for this semester to feel fulfilled. This will prevent you from feeling lost with no direction during the school year. Semester goals could include joining specific clubs, maintaining a regular exercise routine, attending all your classes, applying for on-campus jobs/internships or getting “X” grade in a course.

Achieving little things throughout your day can boost your spirits and brighten your mood when you’re feeling down. For example, if you’re feeling unmotivated or stuck, start writing a daily checklist and cross out each item you achieve, include personal hygiene, exercise and social time.

For seniors who are worried about their future, setting concreate goals with deadlines will ground you when you feel overwhelmed by too much to do or too many options. Don’t be afraid to utilize the career services at your school to guide you in the right direction. But remember to set goals one semester at a time and stay present. And remember to enjoy your senior year and think about some activities you want to do to maximize your year. For example, do you want to attend every home football game, finally tackle that infamous hike, attend a dance with your club, schedule a weekend away with friends or attend a large campus event? Build your “fun goals” into your semester goals to keep yourself balanced.

5. Utilize your school’s mental health services
Feelings of anxiety, depression or hopelessness can occur in all years of college and your feelings are valid. Know that you are not alone, and you can get through this. The goal is to remain on campus and learn some additional tools to help you ride the wave of distress and make it through the year.

Don’t be afraid to go to your school’s counseling services. You’re already paying for them, so you should use the services that are offered. Ask the counseling center any questions you have about what type of services are available, flexibility to support make-up work if your grades have slipped and any other types of support they may offer. They are at your disposal, and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. If contacting the counseling center is too scary, ask a friend to come with you. You can also talk to your R.A. and let them know how you’re feeling. They are students too and chances are they felt the same way at some point.

Remember, the mental health crisis number is now active: dial 988 for any mental health emergency.

6. Contact your parents
Your parents and your friends from home will always be there to support you. Your parents will be grateful that you feel comfortable coming to them during this time and will gladly assist you if you’re feeling overwhelmed or are struggling with the transition back to school. Sometimes a call with family or friends from home can be a calming and grounding distraction.

Mental health tips for parents of college students

Before your young adult goes to college, have conversations about how they want to be supported and how you can check in about their mental health. Ask them if they want constant check-ins every day (e.g., text at 7pm or reminder text at wake-up time) or a phone call once a week. Some young adults prefer to reach out to their parents to avoid feeling homesick at a non-preferred time. Start open-ended conversations about how they’re feeling/adjusting and try to normalize that transitions are challenging for everyone.

If your college student struggles with separation anxiety, try to plan for goodbyes. Discuss if a big comforting hug or a more casual drop-off is best. This is very individualized as each youth’s needs are different, but all parents should encourage their college students to find a place where they can make friends and feel connected to people.

ABOUT THE EXPERT

Laura GrayLaura Gray, PhD, is a clinical psychologist at Children's National Hospital.

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