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Expectations vs. Reality: College With Mental Illness

The transition to college can be bumpy for anyone, but going through it with mental illness can seem impossible. Here's how to combat first-week anxiety.

The transition from high school to college is different for everyone. Students often set up expectations for college, and the reality compared to those expectations can be daunting. For someone with depression and/or anxiety, the reality can be especially overwhelming. The good news is that college campuses have a plethora of options to help students deal with this transition and ease some of the emotional burden.

The first day of classes

Your first day of classes is a big day! This is the day to establish a baseline for going forward in the semester. Here's what you're likely expecting and the reality of what you'll find on your first day. 


You’ll be unpacked and ready to start learning on your first day of class. You expect college to be so different from high school, and you fantasize about all the friends you’ll make on your first day alone. You’re ready for the sense of freedom and excitement this new chapter of your life holds. You'll go to all your classes invigorated and ready to learn about fascinating new topics and connect with inspiring professors.


When you wake up and turn on your light, there are still a few duffel bags taunting you because you haven’t had the motivation to empty them. Instead of feeling ready for class, you feel tired and the thought of leaving your bed makes your eyes water because it’s too paralyzing. You may have had days like this before, but your parents aren’t there to notice if you skip class. You drag yourself out of bed after calculating how much this class is costing you. You still end up sitting alone. The fantasy of ending the day with at least one new friend crumbles to dust.

What to do

It’s important to realize that you’re not alone in this situation. Many students are accustomed to going to school with the same people for years and years. This is a great time to meet new people. It may take a few classes to make even a few acquaintances, but the first step is saying hello to someone new. It’s a frightening action, but most students are just as anxious about their first day as you are.

Related: A General Guide to Mental Health Awareness for Students

The first weekend

Your first weekend on campus can play a big factor in establishing relationships with people who may end up as long-term friends. Here's a look at how it may turn out. 


You’ve heard about college parties and their allure, so you expect to attend at least one or go to as many as you can in one night. Music, dancing, and crowds will consume your night. You expect the campus to be buzzing with activity, and for students to be jumping around from one thing to the next having the time of their lives. 


Your roommate has invited you to a sorority party and you’re prepared to go. You get ready, willing yourself to have fun tonight. As soon as you step inside, the music is too loud. It makes the whole room vibrate. The room is packed and it’s way too hot. You can feel the panic rising, threatening to break out in tears and wheezy breaths. You nudge through the crowd, searching for the bathroom. Careful to lock the door, you support yourself on the sink and regain control. After a few deep breaths, you open the door and navigate through the crowd, barely making it outside before the feeling returns. You allow the fresh air to soothe you and walk back to your dorm feeling defeated.

What to do

Luckily, parties aren’t the only thing that people in college do on the weekends. You’ll find so many different people who would rather play card games, study, or just relax. You can stay in with friends or hallmates and get to know more them. There’s a never-ending list of opportunities! There are also clubs you could join, and colleges have plenty of on-campus events for new students. If parties aren’t your scene, know that you’ll have plenty of other options.

Related: 5 Things to Do When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed by College


An important part of college life is creating a routine for yourself. Your parents aren't there to tell you to do your homework anymore when you're procrasinating and getting the world done may be trickier than you think. 


Your high school teachers warned you about the homework load college has in store for you, so you know it’s unavoidable. You expect to set aside time to study, especially on the weekends. You’re prepared for your room to be quiet, your desk to be comfortable, and the whole dorm to be peaceful so you can work. No matter how long it takes, you know you can do it.


You sit at your desk attempting to finish your homework. You can hear the pumping bass from another room. Everyone seems to be having fun except you. You expected to miss home, but not like this. You go to your bed, abandoning your homework. The twin frame isn’t as comforting as you had hoped. You miss your own bed and your own atmosphere. You go to sleep to begin the cycle again next week, hoping it will be better.

What to do

If you live in a loud dorm and can’t concentrate there, you should go to your campus library, or ask a friend if their dorm is quieter and do your homework with them. Computer labs are another great option if your dorm is just too distracting. They tend to be quieter and may be less packed than the library.

Related: 5 Simple Ways to Overcome Homesickness

If you continue to feel distant and detached, remember there’s always someone to talk to at college, whether it’s your roommate, your RA, or a counselor. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help from a professional, despite certain social stigmas. Check for what counseling services are available on campus. They’re usually confidential, so never be afraid to ask for help. You don’t have to suffer in silence.

Check out more content on coping with a mental illness and other general health advice using the tag "mental health."

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About Callista Tyson

Callista Tyson loves creative writing and hopes to turn it into something more than a passion.


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