On the surface, college looks like an amazing experience. You have years of freedom, parties, living with friends, and no 9-5 job — sounds like quite the life! However, the Instagram pics are just a blip of what goes on in the day-to-day life of a college student. Between maintaining grades, a social life, a (surely complicated) relationship status, physical health, and planning for the future, college is stressful, and it’s no wonder so many students struggle to maintain their mental health. The good news is, professional help is available. Here’s why you should see a therapist in college, according to experts.
If You’re Dealing With Stress
If you’re not experiencing stress in college, please tell us your secret ASAP. The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests that stress is one of the most common challenges Gen Z faces today, and it can be a slippery slope if your stress levels go unchecked. Lisa Adams Somerlot, PhD, LPC and the director of the counseling center at the University of West Georgia, says that if severe stress symptoms persist, you might want to think about seeing someone.
Dr. Somerlot mentions that if physical symptoms — think tightness in your shoulders, headaches, upset stomach or butterflies — never seem to go away, that could indicate something more serious, and seeing a therapist can help. “There’s a point where it’s too much — and that point is different for everyone — but it’s the point where you can’t relax in moments when you normally could relax, like a Saturday afternoon or Saturday night going out with friends,” Dr. Somerlot says.
Ramani Durvasula, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, says that besides duration and persistence of stress, the severity of your stress can also indicate that you might benefit from seeing a professional. “When the stress response gets in the way of your academic work and relationships, it is beyond the ‘usual’ student stress,” she says.
If You’re Having Trouble Coping With Change
We can all relate to the feeling of starting college for the first time — you’re nervous, afraid, lost, and uncertain of every decision you make. It’s normal to feel hit by the overwhelming transition of going to college, and even if you’re not a first-year student, every school year brings new challenges that can have an impact on your mental health.
Dr. Somerlot says that seeing a therapist can be beneficial, even temporarily, or if you’re dealing with difficult feelings and aren’t sure how to sort them out. She tells Her Campus, “If you’re like ‘I’m not sure if I need help, but these are new feelings and I don’t know how to deal with them’ just come in and see someone — maybe just two or three times, or however long — to help with the transition.”
Seeing a therapist helped Cara Milhaven, a junior at Villanova University, adjust to college life. “My freshman year, I decided to go talk to my university’s counseling center because of how homesick I was,” she tells Her Campus. “Going to the counseling center allowed me to talk to someone who could help me organize my thoughts and get to the bottom of why I was feeling so homesick, which really helped me adapt to life on campus and being away from home for the first time.”
If You’re Struggling With ANXIETY AND/OR DEPRESSION
While experiencing stress in college is fairly typical, high levels of persistent anxiety could be indicative of a greater problem. A similar case goes for depression, which according to the World Health Organization, affects 264 million people worldwide. It’s normal to feel sad sometimes, but if your sadness makes it hard to get out of bed, causes you to skip out on commitments, or you notice you’re withdrawing from friends, it may be a sign of depression, and seeing a therapist can help.
“Generally we look at severity and duration, of any mental health problem, to determine whether it needs clinical help,” Dr. Somerlot says. So if you’ve felt sad and/or anxious for weeks at a time to such a point where it’s negatively and noticeably impacting your life, schedule a visit to your university counseling center for an intake evaluation. “An assessment can be really important to help you determine if you need further help,” Dr. Somerlot tells Her Campus. “It can help answer ‘Do I need to seek medication or regular therapy?’ and the professional opinion will help determine severity.”
If Previous Mental Health Challenges Are Coming Back
College isn’t the only time when people struggle with mental health. Maybe you faced similar challenges before college, and maybe you even went to therapy and feel like you already “fixed” everything. While it can be tough to revisit something you thought you already resolved, remember that mental health can shift drastically in college and throughout your life. Dr. Durvasula tells Her Campus, “History of mental health issues can heighten vulnerability, and the absence of your usual supports — like family and routines, as well as social and academic pressures from school — can result in symptoms or challenges with coping.” Remember that life changes a lot in college, and it’s totally normal if former issues resurface again.
Fortunately, many college campuses have counseling centers to support you, and Dr. Somerlot recommends that previously diagnosed students visit the counseling center even if they’re not currently struggling. She shares with Her Campus, “Come in before [your mental health] is triggered so that you can get some good advice, prepare for potential triggers, and develop a [therapeutic] relationship with someone there, if you need it,” Dr. Somerlot says. “Reach out early, because it’s healthier to get help sad and/or anxious.”
Nicole*, a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley, reminds fellow students that there’s no shame in reaching out for help. “I’ve had depression since I was 8, so it was natural for me to need counseling in college, especially since [it was] such a big step in my life,” she says. “I had a lot of trouble adjusting and was so scared of classes that I considered dropping out before the semester even started. I recommend [therapy] to anyone! There’s no need to be embarrassed.”
If You’re feeling “Sexual Tension”
And unfortunately, not the good kind. I’m talking about adjusting to the college hook-up and dating culture — whatever that may mean for you. Whether you’re sexually active for the first time, more sexually active than before, exploring your sexuality, or otherwise, you might find yourself in emotional distress somewhere along the line.
“It’s important that students have a safe place they can go to talk about for sexual health, whether that be a counseling center for the emotional aspects, but also the health center for the physical components,” Dr. Somerlot tells Her Campus. If you have concerns, she recommends visiting your campus health center for accurate information about safe sex, relationships, and more.
A lot of emotions can come up when it comes to sex, and they can be difficult to navigate. Seeing a therapist can help. Dr. Durvasula tells Her Campus, “Intimacy can be wonderful but also a tricky space. Issues around safe sex, pressure to have sex, ambivalence and broken hearts can be very difficult in college. The pressures and challenges of new forays into intimacy can be a stressor that compounds academic stress and can exacerbate risk for mental health issues.” Chances are, you will more likely enjoy sex if you’re sure of what you’re doing, mentally and physically, so don’t be afraid to reach out to a therapist who can support you through it all.
If You’re Engaging In Risky Behaviors
College is meant to be fun, and sometimes, that means going out and taking more risks than you normally would. No one’s judging you for going out and enjoying yourself to let go of the stress from the week, but that being said, you don’t want to put yourself or others in danger, and it’s important to be aware of the level of risk you’re taking.
“Engaging in risky behaviors like over-drinking, sex with risky partners, or if there are ever thoughts of harming yourself or others…things like that could indicate that you need help,” says Dr. Somerlot. This can also be concerning if this kind of behavior was out of character for you before, or if you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed as a result. Again, college is meant to be a time where you can take healthy risks and enjoy yourself, but be mindful of your physical, mental, and emotional health along the way.
If You Simply Want To Try Therapy
While stigma, shame, and embarrassment can make you feel hesitant to see a therapist in college, remember that you are not alone in seeking help. And if you feel like you need support, you probably do. “You can be assured all your information is going to be kept confidential [in therapy],” Dr. Somerlot tells Her Campus. “We’re here to help — we’re not here to embarrass students or make them feel weird about their feelings or problems.”
Dr. Durvasula says therapy can also be as private as you want it to be. “There is a tremendous amount of stigma around mental illness or even simply being in therapy,” she says. “Ultimately, it is your decision whether you share with anyone that you are in therapy.”
Dr. Somerlot reminds students that college is a common time for mental health issues to emerge, so all the more reason to seek help. She tells Her Campus, “For all mental health issues, age 15-25 is what we call the ‘age of onset’ for mental illness, so it’s not uncommon for someone to experience their first bout at this age.”
College can be a challenging journey, with lots of new responsibilities, expectations, relationships, and more. Seeing a therapist can be a great way to receive support, guidance, and practice self-care as you navigate your college experience. If you’re dealing with any of the above experiences, try giving your university counseling center a call, or finding a therapist in your area who can be a professional, supportive presence for your next life chapter.
Cara Milhaven, Villanova University
Nicole*, University of California at Berkeley
*Name has been changed.
SAMHSA, Center for Behavioral Statistics and Quality (2019). National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Stress in America: A National Mental Health Crisis (2020). American Psychological Association.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. College drinking. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
World Health Organization. (2020). Depression. World Health Organization.