STUDENT HEALTH 101: Take Charge of Your Emotional and Mental Health

By Alexandra Dupont, third-year PhD student, UCLA

College is a time of challenges, and along with these challenges come emotional highs and lows. But how do you know what feelings are normal? When do those bad moods signal a clinical disorder? How do you take charge of your own emotional well-being?

For Leeana Carter, a 44-year-old mother of two who is working toward a degree in elementary education and taking courses at Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut, the emotional strain comes from trying to keep up with school and family life. “It’s hard to coordinate the kids’ schedules and mine,” says Carter. “I end up staying up later than I would like to so I can complete homework assignments and papers.”

To keep her emotional health in tact, she schedules time to talk to friends on the phone or via instant messaging. “That’s my biggest stress reliever,” she says.

Jessica Gillooly, chair of the psychology department at Glendale Community College in California, says that for community college students the biggest emotional health issue is often stress caused by time management issues.

“When you get stressed, you can go into a depression,” she says. “When emotions get the better of you, you end up not eating or sleeping right, getting sick, missing days of class, and getting behind.”

Coping With Loneliness

Kristian Sorenson, a student at University of Oregon in Eugene, found that “the biggest shock of college was feeling completely alone.” Gillooly says that connecting with others can be especially challenging for commuter students. “You have to really work hard to find individuals who have common interests or to find other students to form a study group with.” Finding ways to connect with others is part of growth, and it can help you build resiliency.

Sometimes, however, life events are so overwhelming and painful they disrupt your daily life. For some students, their “feeling down” can be a very serious issue, possibly a sign of clinical depression. The Healthy Minds Study, an annual, national survey that examines mental health issues among college students, found that 13.8% of undergraduates screened positive for a diagnosable depressive disorder.

 Am I Clinically Depressed?

Depression goes beyond just feeling temporarily sad or stressed out. Sadness is a temporary feeling, while depression can go on for weeks, months, or years, and someone suffering from depression can have serious trouble coping with everyday activities.

Dr. George M. Slavich, an assistant professor of psychiatry at University of California, Los Angeles, says, “If your mood is impacting your job, social life, or schoolwork, or if you’re feeling down and can’t get yourself to feel better, then it’s probably time to see a professional, at least for an evaluation.”  To see a full list of depression symptoms, CLICK HERE. [embed:]

A diagnosis of depression can be triggered by stressful life events that involve significant changes, such as failing a class or breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Stressors in college life like academic pressures, odd sleep patterns, and instability in relationships can trigger or exacerbate mental health issues. Unhealthy eating habits can also contribute to depression.

Depression is treatable. The student health center at your school is often a great resource. Health and counseling professionals there can help match you to the appropriate treatments. “Seeing a therapist as soon as you notice that you’re not feeling well is the best way to limit the impact that depression will have on your life,” says Dr. Slavich.

How to Improve

Being emotionally and mentally healthy is positive for all aspects of our lives, including grades and relationships. Be proactive in your everyday life and seek professional support when you need it. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, spending time with trusted family and friends, setting realistic goals, staying healthy, and doing activities that you enjoy are all tools that combat feelings of depression.

People Matter

Kate Wright, a student at University of Redlands in California, suggests opening up to new experiences. “College has definitely been an adjustment, but I found a group of friends, and they became my family,” says Wright. But you can’t force it; you have to be true to who you are. Connect with friends and family that give you energy and lift you up. For tips on how to make friends, CLICK HERE. [Inhouse Note: Link to previous article in SH101.]

Set SMART Goals

Setting smart goals will help you feel in control of your life. Some use SMART as an acronym to define these goals. These goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Finishing a project and being on top of your classwork can help you feel like you are in charge of your future success.

Get to Bed and Beware the Booze

Healthy habits are essential for good emotional health. Eat well. Caffeine, sugar, and alcohol can cause huge mood swings. Alcohol is a depressant. If you’ve been feeling down lately, consider how much alcohol you’ve been drinking. Has that been helping or hurting your emotional well-being? Sleep can affect your mood and ability to concentrate, so try to get 7 to 9 hours of consistent sleep each night and avoid “all nighters.”

Sweat It Out

Exercising is a great way to boost your mood and relieve stress. Find fun ways to be physically active during the day. Try a new sport. Join a club team. Organize a basketball game. Bike or walk to class. The U.S. Department of Health Services recommends you aim for 30 minutes of physical activity every day. For more on the benefits of exercise, CLICK HERE. [embed:]

Have Fun!

Sometimes it can be hard to find any way to be happy when you’re depressed, and only professional medical help may be the answer. But doing things you love can help maintain overall positive mental health. What makes you happy? To figure this out, join new clubs, volunteer, attend campus events. By exploring what your college has to offer, you will find things that interest you and that you enjoy doing.

Alexandra Dupont is a PhD student in health psychology at UCLA. Her research explores how psychological and social factors influence physical health. She is also co-president of the student group Psychology in Action, check out:



What are positive actions you have taken to improve your emotional health?


To find out more about depressive disorders, CLICK HERE.



To find out how staying organized can help your mental health. CLICK HERE.


It’s a Juggling Act

When trying to find ways to balance school, exercising, and extracurricular activities, Wright suggests finding a friend to do each of those with. “It is tough at first to balance everything—but plan it so it works for you. Do it with friends. I have one friend I work out with and another I study with.”  Keep in mind that you need to be able to feel content when you’re alone, too.


Sorenson suggests planning your schedule in a way that sets you up for success: “If you are going to have a hard time in the morning waking up, then schedule your classes in the afternoon.” Stay organized by using a planner to write to-do lists and schedule appointments. Keeping your life organized can decrease feelings of being overwhelmed, which can lead to depression.

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Find Out More

To learn more about emotional and mental well-being, CLICK on the following:

Ulifeline, the online resource for college mental health

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American Psychiatric Association

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National Suicide Prevention Lifeline [embed:]



To read 7 questions about mental health answered by Dr. George M. Slavich, assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA, CLICK HERE.

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Q&A: Dr. George M. Slavich, assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA, answers 7 questions about mental health.


1. What’s the difference between feeling depressed and being diagnosed with clinical depression?


A: Feeling sad, unmotivated, and discouraged are universal experiences nearly everyone feels from time to time. Clinical depression occurs when these emotional states become prolonged and severe, and when they begin to impact your daily life. Diagnostically speaking, depression is defined as the presence of (1) depressed mood or (2) diminished interest or pleasure in daily activities. In addition to these two core symptoms are seven secondary symptoms that include: weight or appetite loss or gain, insomnia or hypersomnia, psychomotor agitation or retardation, fatigue, a sense of worthlessness or excessive guilt, problems concentrating or making decisions, and recurrent thoughts of death (e.g., “I’d rather be dead”) or suicide. To be diagnosed with depression, five of these symptoms must be present for most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks, and at least one of the symptoms must be depressed mood or anhedonia. In addition, the symptoms must be distressing, or must impair social or occupational functioning.


2. What triggers depression in college?


A: Depression is often triggered by stressful life events that involve significant changes. Examples include changes in important relationships, such as breaking up with a romantic partner or losing a best friend or family member, or things that happen at school, such as failing an important test or class. The amount of stress that is necessary to trigger a depressive episode depends on several factors, including how well a person copes with adversity.


3. How do you know if you’re actually clinically depressed versus just having a hard time adjusting?


A: Most people have at least some difficulty adjusting to completely new circumstances. In these instances, it is normal to experience some sadness or discouragement, or even to second guess yourself or your decisions. Clinical depression develops when these negative emotional states persist. If you’ve been feeling sad or unmotivated for two weeks or longer and it has been impacting your schoolwork or social life, then you might be experiencing clinical depression.


4. Besides anti-depressants, what are other treatments that have been shown to help treat clinical depression?


A: Although anti-depressants are the most commonly used treatment for depression, psychotherapy­—and especially cognitive-behavior therapy, or CBT—can be effective. CBT involves working with a therapist to learn how to better manage your life. This work sometimes involves learning how to organize or prioritize different options or goals. Other times it involves monitoring, evaluating, and (when necessary) revising your thoughts and beliefs.


5. Is depression treatable?

Yes. Most people who see a therapist or who take anti-depressant medications feel better over time. Depression is a chronic disorder for only a minority of individuals. Seeing a therapist as soon as you notice that you’re not feeling well is the best way to limit the impact that depression will have on your life.


6. How do you know when you should seek help from medical or counseling services?


A: If your mood is impacting your job, social life, or schoolwork, or if you’re feeling down and can’t get yourself to feel better, then it’s probably time to see a professional, at least for an evaluation. If you’re having thoughts of committing suicide or that you’d rather be dead, then you should seek help immediately.


7. What are steps you can take to help cope with the stress of college life?


A: There are several strategies for dealing with stress. One strategy involves examining how you think during stressful situations. During times of stress, for example, it is easy to believe that a situation is really bad and that it will never get better. In these instances ask yourself, Where’s the evidence? For example, what evidence do I have that the situation is catastrophic or that it will never get better? If there is some evidence to support the thought, then make sure you are not exaggerating or judging the situation to be worse than it actually is. If there is little or no evidence to support the thought, then revise your beliefs based on the available facts. Most of the time when we get emotional, it’s because our evaluation of the situation is exaggerated in some way. In addition, when you’re feeling stressed, it’s important to talk to the people who care about you. This can serve several purposes. For example, friends and family can be good sources of advice and can oftentimes help you see negative situations in a different light or from a different perspective.


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