Taking care of back-to-school mental health


Henry D. Gerson, MD, Special to the Ithaca Journal

Changes to schedules and diet, as well as being away from family, can bring a lot of stress to college students

A student’s first few weeks on campus include excitement and new opportunities, but it is also a time that brings a lot of stress.

In addition to meeting academic requirements, students face the challenges of adapting to campus routines and defining themselves socially, all with unprecedented distance from the support of family and friends from home. Recognizing and managing the stress of campus life can be a key to success.

During the semester’s early weeks, students also make choices that eventually have a big influence on their health and well-being. They face decisions on scheduling scarce personal time for recreation, exercise, socializing, eating well or eating junk food and using alcohol or other intoxicants. Poor choices in those areas can increase the likelihood that routine coping difficulties progress to mental and emotional symptoms.

Another factor that can affect student mental health is the reality that some mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, commonly have their onset during the college-age years. A student may be adjusting to the stress of new social and academic demands, but developing symptoms due, in a large part, to biological and genetic causes. The support network of family and friends and the new campus community can play a vital role in identifying and getting help to a student moving toward a crisis.

Keeping a handle on stress: What tends to work to keep stress at a manageable level? Schedule time to keep on top of classes, assignments and upcoming tests. Maintain a good sleep routine, eat well and avoid intoxicants. Set some regular down time for exercise, relaxation and recreation.

How to provide help: Stay in touch and check in. Notice if a student shows changes in mood, thought or manner of relating to other people or handling the periodic stress that often accompanies the first week on campus, midterms and finals.  Offer an opportunity to talk. Be supportive and commit to having a frank talk about mental health issues and suicide. Know the campus community support systems and mental health services and recommend the student use them. Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins-Cortland Community College all offer student counseling and mental health services on campus. The programs offer confidential services and are tailored around each student’s needs.



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