Occupational therapy may be an essential resource for college students as they navigate the complex transition, helping to them to create health-promoting habits, while alleviating the mental health crisis along the way.
Stress and anxiety are more prevalent than ever before in college students across the nation. While there are mental health counselors available on every campus, there are not nearly enough to meet the increasing demands of their students. Among mental health concerns, students are also experiencing associated maladaptive health behavior patterns such as unhealthy eating, physical inactivity, insufficient sleep, and substance use -- all of which have cyclical and spiraling negative impacts on wellbeing. In combination, these mental health stressors and maladaptive behaviors are not only negatively impacting health and wellbeing, they are also negatively impacting academic and occupational participation and performance.
College Student Statistics
Each year, college students across the US are surveyed using the National College Health Assessment to gather insight on students’ health habits, behaviors, and perceptions. The following data provides an brief snapshot of the Spring 2019 American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment overviewing college students' experiences related to mental health, sleep and fatigue, and academic performance:
Over half of the students surveyed:
Felt hopeless in the past 12 months
Felt overwhelmed in the past two weeks
Felt more than average to tremendous stress within the past 12 months
Felt exhausted (not due to exercise) in the past two weeks
Reported three or less days per week of getting enough sleep that they felt rested in the morning
Reported academics have been traumatic or very difficult to handle in the past 12 months
Nearly half of students surveyed:
Felt so depressed it was difficult to function in the past two weeks
Reported sleepiness during daytime activities was more than a little problem
Over a quarter of students surveyed:
Felt overwhelming anxiety in the past two weeks
Reported sleep difficulties have been traumatic or very difficult to handle in the past 12 months
Additionally, the top reported factors affecting academic performance in the past 12 months were stress (34.2%), anxiety (27.8%), sleep difficulties (22.4%), and depression (20.2%).
This begs the questions: Who is teaching students effective stress management and sleep hygiene strategies? Who is helping students integrate essential skills into their daily routines so they can be successful in and out of the classroom? In the same Spring 2019 report, here's how the students responded:
Over three-quarters of students reported not receiving information from their college or university on sleep difficulties, and nearly equal amounts are interested
Over a third of students reported not receiving information from their college or university on stress reduction or depression/anxiety, and a majority are interested
It is clear that many students are not accessing or receiving information related to basic health and wellbeing. Part of the issue may be due to the limited resources available, the mental health stigma, or lack of knowledge of available resources.
While many colleges and universities have began implementing wellness programs on a systemic level, there still remains an inherent issue when it comes to such generalized health-promotion: one size does not fit all. What works for one individual may not be the best solution for another, and rarely do universities and colleges offer professional, individualized services to their students to successfully take on increasing academic demands while managing newly acquired independence away from home.
In addition to mental health providers, students also need access to healthcare professionals who can address all areas of wellness at the individual level to ensure successful participation in academics and daily life, helping students create healthy, sustainable lifestyles throughout college and beyond graduation.
The Need for Occupational Therapy
College is a transformative time period, when most individuals are first experiencing independence, making their own choices and forming new (and often lasting) habits and routines. While the demand for corporate wellness programs is increasing, it is apparent that individuals are not only struggling throughout college years, but they are carrying over these mental health issues and maladaptive behaviors beyond higher education and into their professional settings. Having a helping hand and professional guidance during the defining years of college can prove beneficial in empowering students to create the right habits from the start, setting these emerging adults up for lifelong success.
While traditional mental health providers, such as counselors and psychologists, are still necessary on campuses, occupational therapists (OTs) represent professionals that can supplement and work in collaboration with other campus health care providers. As experts in habits and routines and increasing engagement in health-promoting occupations, occupational therapists can help to further support their students in taking action and creating lasting, health-promoting routines, while developing essential skills to enhance occupational and academic performance.
On the limited college campuses where occupational therapy services are available to students, many positive outcomes have been reported, such as higher enrollment in an academic programs, improved academic skills, increased competency in the student role, more self-awareness and greater self-esteem, improved coping with stress, extension of social outlets, improved study skills, decreased negative self-talk and anxiety, and increased exploration of leisure activities. As college campuses continue to seek out new, innovative programs to enhance the wellbeing of their students, one thing can be made certain: college campuses need occupational therapists, and as students transition to an ever-changing landscape amidst the global pandemic, they need OTs now more than ever.
Disclaimer: This website is intended as an informational resource from the perspective of an occupational therapist and should not take the place of professional medical advice.