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Supporting Students through the Freshman Year Blues and “Mid-Semester Slump”

Est. reading time: 5 mins
Posted Under: For Families, Interviews

Clinically Reviewed by: Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, LICSW

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Students and their families expect the first weeks of college to be full of highs and lows. There is the excitement of having more freedom and making new friends and the jitters of leaving home and handling new assignments. What many young people and their loved ones don’t expect is for that adjustment period to last well past orientation – for that promising experience of launching into a new chapter to quickly unravel within a matter of weeks. Professionals often label this as the “freshman blues” or “mid-semester slump.”

For our team and colleagues with expertise in higher education, this pattern is all too familiar. “When the excitement and distraction of orientation and first-year student activities die down, the real work and the realities of independent life at college sets in,” says Joanna Lilley, MA, NCC

For countless young people, that is when the problems begin. Many will end up feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and hopeless. 

“We see so many high-functioning young people start the school year full of verve and anticipation,” adds Joanna, “only to hit a crisis point by mid-semester that results in students dropping out and returning home without professional support or a plan for what’s next. It’s a chronic problem across campuses nationwide. It’s been identified as a worrying pattern, informally referred to as the ‘mid-semester slump,’ by many in the industry.”

Why do so many students struggle with mental health and a mid-semester slump during their freshman year?

A Seismic Lifestyle Shift

The factors that lead to the freshman blues or a mid-semester downturn are layered. According to the JED Foundation, at the top of that list is the seismic lifestyle shift that comes with starting college which can be destabilizing for any young person, but particularly those who have psychiatric illness or mental health challenges (some illnesses may only present during the college-age years).

The transition brings new freedoms, but also a sense of isolation. True autonomy and a lack of familiar structure are a challenge for many; students may also struggle with growing homesickness, learning how to set personal boundaries, and harnessing executive functioning skills like time management, impulse control, and balancing schoolwork with socializing.

New Social Pressures

Related, the specific social pressures of college life are in a league of their own. The first weeks of school bring friendships that are primarily made based on proximity (who is in your dorm; who sat next to you in Calculus 101) rather than on shared values or interests. Students may struggle with relationships that feel superficial and mourn the distance of old connections, high school friends, and family. 

Additionally, many social events are focused on and around alcohol or other substances. By October, some students will also be rushing at sororities or fraternities, which can bring with it a host of new emotions and pressures.

New Academic Pressures

By mid-semester, academic challenges have also come to the fore. Assignment deadlines and midterms bring students their first grades — an early temperature check of scholastic life — and the results might not be what students are used to, nor what they anticipated. A vast majority of young people in their first year of college are not accustomed to overcoming failure and many have been shielded from it for years. A bump in the road like a bad grade or disappointing result can derail confidence.

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Most significantly, all of these factors (a major lifestyle shift, new social environment, and academic disappointments) are exacerbated if a young person struggles with mental health issues; a rampant problem that impacts every college campus. According to an American College Health Association survey of more than 63,000 students at 92 schools in 2017, 40% of college students reported feeling depressed in the prior year, such that it was difficult for them to function normally at school. 61% said that they had feelings of “overwhelming anxiety.”

What happens when students have a mental health crisis during freshman year?

Unfortunately, the two most common outcomes of a mid-semester crisis are students dropping out and returning home, or students seeking support from their college counseling team and finding it lacking

The problem with returning home

“Many parents are not comfortable with seeing their children be uncomfortable,” says Joanna. “So when their young adult calls to say they are not happy or that something has gone wrong, it seems like common sense to withdraw them from the situation and bring them home. This, by itself, doesn’t solve the underlying issues and can make a young person feel as though they have regressed.”

The problem with school counseling resources

School health centers can be an excellent resource for students. However, while many schools are ramping up counseling support on campuses, many school mental healthcare faculty remain overwhelmed and understaffed. Institutions are often not fully equipped to support students struggling with underlying mental health or substance use issues. 

A way forward for students facing a mid-semester slump during their freshman year.

So what can students and their families do if they are hit with depression, anxiety, or a mental health crisis during their first year of college?  “Get the appropriate therapeutic support,” emphasizes Joanna. 

“There are so many great resources out there that can be that bridge back to school or that will help pave a new path forward. Finding the expert team and support that will provide the scaffolding for growth? That’s the ticket.” 

While an individual therapist can be a great resource for a student who has taken a pause from college life, many students experiencing a mental health crisis will need a clinical “care team” comprised of licensed counselors, psychiatrists, and/or health and wellness experts to set them up with a long-term plan for gaining coping skills and learning to navigate pre-existing mental health conditions as an adult. 

At The Dorm, we’ve developed a unique care model that works for students and families who find themselves in this situation:

  • First, we offer highly individualized treatment plans. Every student’s situation is unique and we approach it that way.
  • Second, we are flexible. Students never have to worry about whether they will be able to schedule therapy or receive the support that they need in and around their class schedules or other commitments. Our licensed clinicians and expert providers are trained to make it work, be flexible, and adapt.
  • Third, we place a strong emphasis on practical skills therapy and social skills therapy, regardless of whether someone comes to us with anxiety and depression or an autism spectrum disorder. We know that sustainable growth, recovery, and learned independence are only sustained through skill-building and practical application. Our clients should walk away with a new toolkit of skills and coping mechanisms for the future.
  • Fourth, we create community and continuity. So much of college is marked by change. Clients at The Dorm know that each morning, like clockwork, there will be a breakfast group at 9:00 am hosted at our Clubhouse. Every week they will be able to join our group social activities. We provide a built-in community that is inclusive and familiar; a safe refuge where they can feel grounded and engage on their own terms.
  • Fifth, we integrate health and wellness and self-care into our care models. Many students at school go into ‘survival mode’, foregoing good nutrition and movement. Our team helps them discover how mindfulness, nourishment, and fitness can play an important role in their recovery and well-being.
  • Finally, we take the whole family into consideration. Every one of our clients is assigned a family coach that helps everyone set healthy boundaries and navigate a path forward, together.

“Most of all,” emphasizes Joanna, “it’s important for all students and their families to remember that college is not going anywhere and that there are so many options open to them. But first, it’s important to get the support that they need so they can proceed with strength and confidence.”

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