Handling emotional challenges in College

Handling emotional challenges in College
Students arriving at university for the first time need to adapt to significant changes. These changes can be moving to a new area, separation from family and friends, establishing a new social network, managing a tight budget, combining academic study with family commitments, coping with a disability in a new environment and, for international students, living in a new country and adjusting to a different culture. Although these changes can be exciting and challenging they can also cause certain anxiety and stress.

Some of these problems can be solved quickly by talking to a family member, a friend or by seeking help from tutors or other faculty/staff members. However, it is important to differentiate normal emotional reactions from difficulties that may take the form of a long-term mental illness or a temporary but debilitating psychological reaction. Also, it has to be taken into consideration that some students may arrive at university with a pre-existing psychological problem.

Emotional challenges in collegeThe way a student reacts to stress depends on their personality, their previous experiences and on the situation itself. It is expected that during university time students mature and develop intellectually and emotionally. Some students, however, will experience emotions that are extreme and are likely to disrupt their capacity to mature.


The following are some of the most common emotional disorders in students:

Adjustment disorders and stress-induced disorders – In students this is often associated with either loneliness or the intensity of new relationships, studying and examination stress. There is also an increasing fear of failing to live up to expectations and thus uncertainty about job prospects. The problems usually manifest as depression and/or anxiety and sometimes these reactions can be severe and/or long lasting and needing active treatment. Both depression and anxiety can have an impact on interpersonal processes as well as social and academic integration.

Dependency disorders – Trying for a first time alcohol and/or drugs, their recreational use or binge taking, is something some students decide to experiment with. If the use becomes excessive it can lead to personality change, impaired concentration (academic decline) and problems in social functioning.

Eating disorders – They often develop between the ages of twelve and twenty-five. Even though most people diagnosed with bulimia nervosa or anorexia are women, there is a continued rise in prevalence amongst men who also suffer from these disorders. Students with eating disorders are often achievement oriented, have low self-esteem and tend to be perfectionists.

Developmental and personality disorders – The diagnosis of personality disorders within the student population should be made with much caution considering that at this age personalities are still in the process of developing. More common are developmental disorders. Diagnosis, treatment and prognosis can be difficult due to the sensitivity of both of these disorders.


Providing Support


The best way to manage a crisis is to avoid it from developing. Recognising the early signs and manifestations of mental illness is crucial. Some of the most common signs among students can be increased self-neglect, poor coursework, deteriorating academic performance, isolation, and/or disruptive behaviour. It is more likely that the student’s behaviour changes gradually, but now and again abnormal behaviour can also occur suddenly.

Providing a supportive environment to students with mental health difficulties is key in helping them achieve full academic potential. Most importantly, students with mental health difficulties should seek appropriate treatment and are encouraged to refer themselves to the student counsellor. Reasonable adjustments can be made to support study needs. Staff can be given guidance for the support and care of students but all the while keeping sure to respect the confidentiality of personal information.

The most serious risk is the student harming him/herself or others. This requires immediate attention and professional medical assessment including hospital admission. Another example of an emergency can be when a student suffers a severe panic attack. It is a terrifying experience for the student as well as for those who observe. It is recommended to distant the student to a private area and call the student counsellor right away.

Student counselling services that are provided are often psychological assessments and evaluation, time-limited therapy, emotional support, personal development groups, or in some cases referrals to external psychological services. It is extremely important that all information given by the student is treated as strictly confidential and in accordance with ethical codes. Only in rare circumstances (i.e. when there is significant danger of a student harming themselves or others) it is necessary to share information with trusted third parties. This is explained to the student on their first counselling session.

Counseling can also provide an opportunity to explore general developmental issues such as career choices, study habits, shifts in daily routines, relationships, identity and self-concept. Additionally, those students studying in English for the first time may have a hard time keeping up. Even if their language skills are strong their reading skills may be much weaker and they will need additional support.

Furthermore, social integration is always recommended to help with problems of loneliness and relationships. This can be done by engaging in any academic, cultural and sporting activities. Extracurricular activities exist to complement the academic curriculum and to enhance the student’s educational experience. Additional academic involvement can enhance learning and development, i.e. practicing coping skills and problem solving skills while managing time wisely. Also, university peer groups become an important source of influence in terms of personal development while students that remain preoccupied only with friends from home tend to show more adjustment problems.

Emotional Challanges

It is important to note that the student who seeks counselling is not a “weak” student, instead they have strength and courage to recognize when they may need support. Consequently, every effort should be made to help the student as soon as possible.

By Eva Berkovic
Student Counselor