It’s finally that time of year again! Amidst planning our schedules, setting up our dorms, and getting accustomed to a new sleep schedule (more on that later), it’s pretty much expected that our mental health will worsen from the newness of it all after a long summer. And as school ramps up, it becomes more difficult to craft the perfect mental health checklist for college students, no matter how informed and eager you are.
We’ve all seen the generic mental health checklists in medical articles and spiels from parents, and I’m sure lots of us react with a simple “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” A lot of the time, it feels unrealistic for college students to be in pristine mental shape all the time — and our abnormally busy schedules are often ignored by these popular mental health guides. So I went looking for the top mental health tips specifically geared toward college students.
Behold, *the* mental health checklist for college students — with recommendations from licensed psychologist David Tzall.
- Establish a daily schedule including work tasks, activities, and self-care.
If you’re going to manage all your priorities and add mental health into the mix, scheduling is key. It’s not the most fun activity in the world, but coming from a to-do list enthusiast, believe me — it helps organization more than anything.
But don’t just take my word for it. “Creating a daily schedule can provide structure and stability, reducing anxiety and stress,” Tzall says. “Knowing what to expect each day can help students feel more in control of their lives.” You can also refer back to this schedule if you ever feel burnt out or overwhelmed, and shift your priorities accordingly — for example, easing up on an extracurricular or asking for an extension on an assignment.
This also means working on your procrastination (sorry if I’m calling you out here, but we’ve all been there). For me, what works best is having a friend there to study with me and keep me focused — but if you’re employing this strategy, choose a friend you know won’t distract you and will keep you quiet! If you’re better working solo, Tzall suggests breaking up work into manageable pieces so as to not get overwhelmed and setting deadlines so you don’t end up panicking the night of the due date, submitting at 11:59 p.m.
- Try for 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
As Tzall puts it, “A well-rested mind is better equipped to handle stress, concentrate, and manage emotions.” So if you’re trying to memorize concepts for a test and just can’t seem to get it right, maybe try heading to bed a bit earlier instead of doom-scrolling on TikTok until 3 a.m.
That might warrant taking a break from social media, too, something I recommend time and time again. Or, if you’re especially busy, you can even try listening to lectures while you sleep. (It works, but don’t overuse this strategy!)
- Eat regular, nutritious meals.
Don’t listen to everyone preaching “girl dinner” on TikTok (AKA, a small snack plate disguised as a meal). The fact is, college students need satisfying, balanced meals to keep us going, especially when we’re out on campus all day.
In a culture obsessed with mentally unhealthy habits like dieting and weight management, we undermine the actual importance of getting in a meal. But let’s set the facts straight: Eating three meals each day is vital in maintaining good mental and physical health. “A balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains provides essential nutrients that support brain function and mood regulation,” Tzall explains.
Just remember the mantra: Food is fuel. Find some nutritious recipes that not only provide a whole, filling meal but also won’t tire you out. Since cooking can be time-consuming, you can also alternate cooking dinner with a roommate or friend — whatever works for you!
- Find a fun physical activity for stress release.
I’m not preaching physical activity to give into the aforementioned unhealthy weight culture our society unfortunately possesses. The fact is, getting out for a walk or partaking in physical activity is so good for you — it’s actually the #1 most effective stress management technique.
And actually, this shouldn’t be surprising. If you’ve ever blasted “Better Than Revenge” on the elliptical while pissed off about an assignment, you already know how incredible a workout can feel. Plus, Tzall confirms, “Physical activity releases endorphins, which are natural mood lifters.” He agrees that “regular exercise can reduce stress and improve overall mental well-being.” Whether it’s a short walk or a weekly activity, the benefits speak for themselves.
Since we’re all so busy, you should definitely pick an activity you enjoy. And the good news is, if you’re like me and aren’t the biggest gym rat, there’s still lots to choose from. Join intramural sports with your friends; visit the school pool; or take a class as part of your college or center close to your school.
To kill two birds with one stone, try yoga, which applies the practical skill of mindfulness. “Techniques like meditation, deep breathing, and yoga can help reduce stress, improve concentration, and promote emotional stability,” Tzall confirms. But it’s up to you — just try something new and stick with whatever interests you!
- Know your limits when it comes to alcohol and other substances.
At the risk of sounding like a parent scolding their child for getting too drunk at a party, try not to overdo it with alcohol and marijuana. For many college students, it’s just not realistic to preach sobriety (I’m definitely not asking you to demand a sober Friendsgiving) — but nobody wants to get sick, too, so make sure you’re sticking to your limits when you do go out.
“Excessive alcohol or drug use can worsen mental health issues,” Tzall says. College is a time for celebration, socialization, and enjoyment, but if that means substances for you, keep yourself in check and make sure you’re safe.
- Socialize with friends and family every day.
Locking yourself in your room and studying all day is certainly a popular vibe for exam season, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of socialization. Even if you’re an introvert, engaging with other people helps improve mental health.
Especially around stressful times, having friends there to support you can make a world of difference. “Building and maintaining strong relationships with friends and family can provide emotional support and a sense of belonging, reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation,” Tzall advises. So even if it means a short catchup with your roommate, socializing is a plus.
- Seek professional help, like therapy, if applicable.
Mental health is more than just a checklist, though — it’s a real struggle many of us deal with on the daily. As much as these tips will help, sometimes speaking to a professional or seeking further help is the best way to heal. And coming from a major therapy advocate, I promise you, there’s absolutely no shame in that.
Unfortunately, students overlook mental health issues too frequently. “Many students ignore signs of mental health issues, thinking they’ll go away on their own,” Tzall says. “Recognize the signs of mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, and seek help early.” Therapy is a great way to understand your issues and where they come from, but you can also make use of your college’s mental health support services, confide in a trusted family member, or talk to your doctor.
Mental health concerns are real for college students, so it’s essential that we all take care of ourselves. That means following the items on this list, but also not being too hard on ourselves if we do mess up. If you’re making an effort, that’s still an impressive step — so pat yourself on the back for prioritizing your mental health and keep at it!
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.