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Dr. Sherry Benton on Mental Health Support at College

Dr. Sherry Benton on Mental Health Support at College

If you’re a college student and you’re struggling with mental health, you’re definitely not alone. College News got advice from an expert.

With a recent research study showing that one in five university students are affected by anxiety or depression, the pressure on campus facilities is high. College News discussed the problem with Dr. Sherry Benton.

Dr. Benton is a psychologist and mental health care administrator with over 22 years of experience. She is also the founder of TAO Connect—a digital platform that functions to make mental health recovery treatments easily accessible.

College News: How can college students reach out about mental health struggles?

Dr. Benton: Most campuses have a counseling center, counseling service or psychological services. Find your campuses service and learn about their programs and services. Typically, they offer a range of options.

CN: What kinds of mental health support facilities should students be looking out for when applying for colleges?

DB: Ideally, campuses should take a campus wide, comprehensive approach—including prevention, resilience training, counseling, groups, bystander education programs and other services. The Jed foundation, “Jed Campus” program works with a campus over a four-year period to insure the campus approach to mental health, substance abuse and suicide, are comprehensive and well-coordinated. Jed Campus designation is an excellent way to insure a campus has taken these issues seriously and thought out the best approaches for them.

CN: What are the most common and the most effective ways to deliver mental health therapy?

DB: Different people have different needs and respond to different approaches. Traditional face-to-face individual psychotherapy is the most common and best known. However, research has shown it is not more effective than group therapy or internet based cognitive behavioral therapy for many common problems. Many people also find self-help or apps effective for them.

CN: Do you think that students do not receive enough mental health help at college?

DB: I think most universities work very hard to meet the need, yet providing psychotherapy is really expensive and often difficult to access everywhere not just in universities. Using effective models such as stepped-care can help campuses to stretch limited resources to provide more help to more students. In stepped-care, students are quickly assessed and then begin with a level of help likely to be helpful. Progress is monitored regularly and students can be moved to more intensive or less intensive levels of help depending on their responses.

CN: How can campuses raise awareness and take a proactive approach to mental health?

DB: Campuses can raise awareness through the following: educational campaigns, resilience training in freshman orientation classes, bystander education programs like Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR) or Kognito, education programs through Greek houses, residence halls, athletic departments, clubs and organizations.

CN: Are there exercises that students can practice on their own to help improve their mental state?

DB: Mindfulness meditation is something everyone should do. The many health benefits and mental health benefits would suggest that daily meditation should be as consistent as brushing your teeth. Another option is TAO Connect, which provides students access to its self-help courses whenever they want, without having to make an appointment to see a therapist.

CN: What is TAO Connect?

DB: We are a suite of online tools for mental health screening, assessment, patient education, skill development and progress monitoring. TAO can be used as self-help or with a therapist or case manager. TAO’s materials are interesting and engaging with actors in scenes, animations, interactive exercises and journaling.

CN: How can students take advantage of TAO Connect?

DB: There are 120 colleges in the US and Canada offering TAO’s programs to students either as self-help or through their counseling center. Contact your counseling center to find out if your school subscribes to TAO.

Further reading: You’re Not Alone: Facing Loneliness In College

You’re Not Alone: Facing Loneliness in College

There is often an expectation that going to college will result in the commencement of the best years of a person’s entire life. For some people, this is true. Becoming independent, moving away from home and making new friends can provide the freedom that they need in order to flourish. Yet, for others, this isn’t the case at all.

Whilst college can be fun and exciting, it is natural that such huge amounts of change can cause anybody to feel anxious, vulnerable and insecure, prompting feelings of loneliness in college. According to a 2017 survey of 48,000 college students, 64 percent said that they had felt “very lonely” in the previous 12 months.

So why doesn’t anybody talk about loneliness in college?

Thanks to pop-culture, the pressure to enjoy college is paramount, generating shame and silence in those who can’t keep up with their classmates’ levels of constant excitement.

College is pretty much a wildcard. Disappointment with reality compared to expectation is a huge struggle for students, along with being in a strange environment, lacking money, being unprepared for independent living, missing family and friends and lacking a routine. Not clicking with the people that you’re forced to live with and comparing your experiences to those on social media can lead to feelings of isolation and inadequacy.

With no one to check up on you, retreating into these suffocating feelings of loneliness can be easier than conforming to the pressure to fake it along with everyone else. This can cause mental health struggles such as anxiety and depression, and make it impossible to concentrate on your increased workload.

Sound familiar? Here’s how to face loneliness in college.

“Not clicking with the people that you’re forced to live with and comparing your experiences to those on social media can lead to feelings of isolation and inadequacy”

Talk to someone 

Telling someone that you’re feeling lonely and overwhelmed won’t fix the situation, but will relieve a huge weight from your shoulders and allow your brain to process these feelings objectively.

This person could be a family member, friend, neighbor or even a complete stranger or doctor. Colleges often have wellbeing and support groups that will help you to realize that other people are experiencing the same feelings as you.

Admitting that you’re lonely can be hard and feel embarrassing, but speaking out and realizing that it is normal to struggle will ease your mind. You might even make a new friend.

Put yourself out there

It can be hard, but making an effort to meet new people will increase your chances of finding someone who you connect with and combating loneliness in college. Don’t feel pressured to like everyone that you live with, choosing who we forge friendships with is one of life’s privileges.

It sounds cliché, but joining clubs and societies and being part of a team or learning a new skill can introduce you to new people, give you a sense of routine and distract your mind for a while. Sitting next to someone new in lectures and mustering the courage to ask them if they’ve finished the assignment could lead to conversation, and hanging out in community areas will also help you to feel included.

Posting on a social media group for your area of residence and asking if anyone wants to hang out can also introduce you to new friends. If you’re thinking about quitting anyway, what have you got to lose?

Look after your body 

Loneliness and mental health problems are often linked with decreases in physical health. Getting enough sleep, exercising and eating a healthy, balanced diet will not only give you energy, but also improve your mood and cognitive function, helping you to think a little more clearly.

Get a part-time job

If you had a part-time job before college, consider applying for a similar role or volunteering in your free time. Unlike the vast, new changes in your life, knowing what to expect in a job role will give you routine, distract you from your worries and help you to feel more settled. Not to mention, working will introduce you to an entirely new set of people and give you a break from your fellow students.

Remember: You are normal

It is so important to normalize the situation and realize that being lonely is not only okay, but also expected.

Every person is different and being thrown together with a group of strong personalities when you are more reserved, or vice versa, can make you feel different, in a bad way. People also naturally have different stress levels, coping abilities and family relationships.

Similarly, remember that social media is not a true representation of reality. People post staged highlights of their life, and in most cases do not live to that level of excitement on a day-to-day basis.

Give yourself time

Like with any big change, adjusting can take time. People take varying amounts of time to adjust to a situation and the academic year will also take a while to quieten down.

If you need to take time for yourself, then do. Equally, it’s okay to go home for the weekend, or take a break from college all together and apply again when you’re more prepared.

For some people, college just isn’t for them. There are so many other paths forward in life and nobody is going to judge you for wanting out of a bad one.

Monitor your mental health 

Whilst loneliness is not a mental health problem, lonely feelings can turn into anxious thoughts. If you’re feeling worried, depressed or having panic attacks, talk to someone. If your feelings of loneliness in college are interfering with your ability to function and taking over your daily life, then ask someone to step in.

Further reading: Mental Health Awareness in School