Why College May Not be the Best Time of Life

By: Sidney Hays, MSW, LISW, DARTT,

Lindner Center of HOPE Professional Associates, Outpatient Therapist

From wild parties in the massive frat houses to stories finding your soulmate in movies and television, many enter college with bright eyes and big dreams. There are expectations of melting into a friend group, dating, gaining experience, and finding your passion as soon as you get to college. All of this, stepping-stones to graduating with the dream job lined up, a group of best friends you’ll vacation with every summer, and that special someone you just might spend the rest of your life with. You’ve heard about the glory days and the football games and the spring break trips. But, what happens when you get to college and the classes are hard, friendships are complicated, partying comes with consequences, and heartbreak hits you?

Many young adults enter college with high hopes and expectations that seem reasonable Unfortunately, the movies and glory day memories from loved ones miss crucial struggles and obligations that come with college. This often leaves college students feeling like they’re “missing something” or failing, which contributes to poor mental health in an environment already rife with challenges. The struggles of large class sizes, living with strangers, easier access to drugs and alcohol, financial stress, being away from home, and lack of structure tend to tax the delicate wellbeing of young adults who have not been adequately equipped with needed skills and whose brains are not fully developed.

Most 18-year-olds step onto a college campus and it’s the first time they will be spending the majority of their time living away from home. Suddenly they are responsible for most every aspect of their life, with minimal adult supervision. Out from the safety net of coming home to parents and the guidance of coaches and teachers, college freshmen spend the majority of their time exclusively with others their same age, facing the same struggles. They navigate friendships, romantic relationships, and living with strangers as best they can, often struggling with codependency, lack of boundaries, and the pervasive anonymity and distance offered by the internet. This group tends to struggle with interpersonal skills and ability to regulate their own emotions, with little guidance on effective skills to use. Many find themselves feeling lonely and in cycles of unhealthy or unfulfilling relationships.

Accountability is a new concept for many college students. The looser structure of college settings requires more self-determination and discipline than high school. College is a place where students are generally free to make most of their decisions. While this can be liberating and a time of beautiful self-discovery, it can also lead to poor attendance, study habits, and moderation of substances and sleep. The negative physical, academic, and emotional effects of these choices tend to pile up, which is why so many college students begin to struggle with anxiety and depression.

What to tell a college student who isn’t having the best time of their life:

Know that you are not alone.

Mayo Health Clinic reported in July 22 that up to 44% of college students reported symptoms of depression and anxiety. The stressors faced by college students are underplayed and the good times overly glorified. It often takes time to make friends and friend groups naturally change; that’s okay. People are trying to understand what they want to do with the rest of their lives, becoming independent adults, and learning about the world. This will likely lead to many shifts in relationships as well.

Manage expectations.

You are in school to get a degree, learn about yourself, create relationships, and prepare yourself for the workforce. You may not find a group of friends during welcome week or even freshman year. The romantic relationships may not work out. You may not graduate with your dream job lined up. This is a step towards your goals and can still be part of a life worth living, even if you don’t get exactly what you want by graduation.

Get support and develop lasting relationship skills.

College is a great time to connect with a therapist to process the changes and have a support to help you identify your goals and live within your values. Learning skills to set boundaries, prioritize your time, communicate effectively, and regulate your emotions will make a world of difference in college and will carry on through your life.

A great option for learning these skills is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT is a treatment that helps participants learn and practice skills to regulate emotions, tolerate distress, and effectively navigate interpersonal relationships.

If you are interested in learning more, for yourself or someone else, about DBT or individual therapy to help navigate this beautiful and challenging season, contact the Lindner Center of HOPE.