Faculty Spotlight: Summer Mental Health

Summer is the three months out of the year that, for many college students, is a time for fun recreational activities and a breather from the stress of classes. However, moving away from campus for the summer, leaving the productive academic environment, and changing relationships due to distance may actually be stressful. With approximately one-third of U.S. college students experiencing depressive symptoms (2013 National College Health Assessment), it is important to be aware of the potential mental health challenges college students will face over the summer.

Depression is a mental health condition, prevalent among college students. Symptoms of depression range from persistently sad, anxious, or "empty" mood, feelings of hopelessness, decreased energy, difficulty sleeping and changes in appetite. The transition from the routine and high-stress environment of college life to a less structured summer, can be stressful. The link between stress and depression can be seen through a shift from healthy and adaptive coping strategies during stressful events or transitions, allowing depressive symptoms to persist. The stress, coping, and depressive symptom cycle can be reoccurring, having a detrimental impact on mood, life satisfaction and productivity.

However, there are strategies students can employ prior to and during summer break to mitigate the potential negative consequences of the summer transition. Planning for activities, such as an internship or job, can stave off the anxiety-producing feeling of unproductivity. Additionally, students should be encouraged to take the summer break to explore and do the things they are unable to during the school year, such as camping, physical exercise, or making their way through a fun book list. Summer goals may be especially helpful for those students who are involved in multiple on campus activities and perform best under college stress.

Anticipating changing relationships due to summer break may also be beneficial for students. Students living on campus will be accustomed to living and being surrounded by peers. The transition from this stimulating social environment may be stressful for some, producing feelings of loneliness. Similarly, as relationships become strained due to distance, it’s important for students to be aware of the potential for relationships to change in intensity and closeness. Technology and social media may be helpful in staving off some of the feelings of loneliness, however, social media can also be anxiety producing as students view and see their friends having fun without them. Open discussions and realistic social expectations for summer may better prepare students for the shift from school to summer.

Summer mental health and prevention are important for college students as they will not have access to college campus mental health services, such as the counseling center. Fortunately, students can employ strategies such as summer goal planning and facilitating conversations around changing relationships to circumvent depressive symptoms.

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