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How To Distinguish Lack Of Motivation Or Mental Illness In College Students

Updated on October 5, 2014


In recent years, studies have shown that 1 in 4 college students have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Some more severe than others, however, today’s college students are increasingly being confronted with mental health problems.


Mental Health Stigma

The stigma of society dictates that individuals are deemed, based on “societal norms,” as being less than, flawed or dangerous. Mental health disorders and the field of psychology remain to be highly stigmatized which then complicate the treatment process. Imagine the impression that mental health disorders have on a college campus. This population is imagined to be beginning their autonomous life and with a tremendous amount of pressure to perform by professors and families alike, those who are experiencing internal struggles may not be as prone to seek help. Feeling as if they are inappropriate for college due to their experienced difficulties further impact their difficulties.

I Can’t Get to Class

What happens when a student does not come to class? The thoughts rapidly emerge in one’s mind, none of which are positive or concerned but rather annoyed by the absent student’s behavior. These students are deemed as lazy, unmotivated, unsuitable and plain old senseless. Yet thoughts cease right in their tracks when one attempts to entertain the possibility that the person may have additional concerns.

As a whole, we tend to be egotistical and believe that everything is about us. So when a student doesn’t show up in class other’s are likely to take it personal such as I am not a good lecturer, parent, friend, etc. Though, who tends to focus on the absent student's struggle. Frequently no one takes the time when their distracted by focusing on themselves. It is time to change the way we think about student’s behaviors.

I Wonder if Anyone Knows

Common thoughts that students have and what I hear from the students I see. Afraid to tell anyone about the troubles they are experiencing for fear that they will ultimately have to drop out of school if they reveal their their difficulties. Another misconception is college students do not have psychological concerns. I have heard this from students and administrators alike. That is just not true. As a result, internalization is a common reaction when a young person begins to have issues with emotions, behaviors, substances or something more severe like hallucinations. They too have learned about the stigmatization of others in the past which increases their fear as it relates to their own problems. But many times I do not begin seeing a student until they are failing or on the verge of doing so.

I Want Help But I am Scared

Fears are commonplace with anyone who suspects that they may have a mental illness. Again, that is related to the stigma of mental health issues. Yet, with certain mental health disorders, early intervention is essential, yet fear frequently inhibits that type of treatment. Studies show that people do not seek help for symptoms commonly seen in mood disorders for nearly 10 years. In addition, mental health disorders fall into two categories: short-term and long-term. An example of a short-term disorder can be bereavement, which is thought to improve with time. On the contrary, an example of a long-term disorder is schizophrenia since the condition will never completely go away, though the symptoms and severity can fluctuate.


Noticing Early Signals Lead To Better Treatment

I cannot go through all mental health disorders in one article, yet I can discuss some early warning signs that may help you to decide if professional help may be appropriate. Again many of the disorders emerge somewhere between adolescence and early adulthood which makes the traditional college student the group of focus. Early interventions are key!!

Some Warning Signs Are:

  • Depressed mood – loss of interest in once enjoyable activities
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleep issues – either sleeping more than 8 hours or less than 5
  • Using or increasing the use of substances – even prescription medication
  • Reckless behavior – sexual promiscuity, spending sprees, careless driving, and racing thoughts
  • Unable to maintain focus – falling behind in assignments, unable to concentrate despite your best attempt
  • Nightmares that do not subside
  • Excessive worry that impacts your ability to get things done
  • Hearing or seeing things that others do not – hallucinations
  • Want to hurt yourself or someone else
  • Other behavior that concerns you or others around you

Some signs include:

Why Seek Help

It is important to seek help as soon as you or a loved one notices the warning signs of a mental illness. Many mental health disorders, especially those that are considered severe such as those in the schizophrenic classification commonly emerge during late teens early twenties, or “college aged” individuals. One of the most important aspects of getting professional help is “confidentiality.” You might ask what is confidentiality? Well this is an ethical standard held by all mental health professionals that ensure the privacy of the client and what they disclose unless the client is thought to be in danger. Confidentiality includes that your teachers, academic counselors, deans, parents if over the age of 18 or anyone else will know if you sought out therapy unless you tell them. Confidentiality comforts most clients and even helps them to seek help.

Resources Specifically for College Students

College students are a unique population with some unique issues. By doing a lot of outreach and advocacy work it is apparent that stigma reduction is powerful within this group. Awareness for students, administration and professors alike are essential. I found a helpful program that uses an avatar based program that walks students and faculty through scenarios so that they can learn how to empathetically work with a student who is currently experiencing concerns. Kognito is growing in popularity on college campuses everywhere. Also, a movement named, Each Mind Matters, which started in California to support the change in culture as it relates to mental health issues but is gaining omnipresent attention. Each Mind Matters has a connection and blogging function that allows students to get together. Lastly, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a national organization that brings awareness, stigma reduction and a plethora of resources.

Prevalence of Mental Health Concerns

Do you or someone you know have a mental health disorder?

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It is imperative to seek help if you may be wondering about how the above-mentioned symptoms are affecting you. If you or a family member is a college student and are experiencing concerns mentioned above it can be helpful to ask a teacher or counselor if psychological services are offered or if a referral can be made to the community. If you have noticed those symptoms and not a college student, please seek help within your community. Mental illness does not define a person but can explain a person’s individuality.


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    • mdscoggins profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Scoggins 

      4 years ago from Fresno, CA

      Thank you Denise for your comment and sharing your personal story. By exposing your own experience with mental illness helps to reduce the stigma attached to mental health. As a society we can overcome the discrimination related to mental illness one person at a time :)

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      4 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      This is definitely an issue of concern in our current society. I was diagnosed with mental illness after having several children. I have two children currently on medication for mental illness. The older of the two has had emotional disorders most of her life, but they have worsened as she entered young adulthood. The younger one was diagnosed while in college as a young adult. Both left school during college due to mental health difficulties.

    • mdscoggins profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Scoggins 

      4 years ago from Fresno, CA

      Thank you Memuna Umber for the comment, it can be very scary at times. For your friends, your support is invaluable.

    • mdscoggins profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Scoggins 

      4 years ago from Fresno, CA

      Thank you thumbi7 for the comment. I agree with you. I see many students who are very troubled and the stigma related to mental health issues really wears on them.

    • thumbi7 profile image

      JR Krishna 

      4 years ago from India

      This hub came on the right day. Today is world drug abuse prevention day. College students are the ones targeted and ruined by the drug dealers.

    • profile image

      Memuna Umber 

      4 years ago

      The information you provided here is detailed and factual, I am both intrigued and scared. I know a few peers around me who are excessively paranoid.

      Unfortunately I cannot do anything unless they accept my help.

      This was very helpful, thank you!


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