When Does Change Become Too Much? Adjustment Disorders in College Students


Stress: it’s something all students face when going to college for the first time. While starting college is a positive step for many people, it is a big change. Being in a new environment, taking harder classes, making new friends, and often living away from home are just some of the challenges that new college students face. When this new stress becomes too much, it can develop into an adjustment disorder.

Adjustment disorders typically occur during times of great transition and stress in one’s life. Adjustment disorders can be caused by both single events and ongoing occurrences. Some examples of changes that can lead to adjustment disorders include getting married, breaking up with a significant other, or starting a new job, but can really be any sort of  big life change (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

While most people experience stress associated with changes in their lives, people who struggle with adjustment disorders experience this stress on a new level. Adjustment disorders are characterized by a person’s stress reaction to an event or change exceeds a manageable level. Their reaction to stress leads to an inability to function normally, which impacts their social, emotional, and occupational wellness. Adjustment disorders can exist with a variety of symptoms, including depressed mood, anxiety, changes in behavior, or a combination of many symptoms (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

For many people, going to college is a positive opportunity for growth. However, for some it can bring on the debilitating effects of having an adjustment disorder. One study found that a significant number of first-year college students experience adjustment disorders, making it one of the most common mental health issues facing college students. Angelyn Ramos, a student at the University of Utah, felt that having an adjustment disorder changed her entire identity, causing her debilitating anxiety. She struggled to find coping techniques that worked for her intense anxiety at the start of her college career. However, she found comfort in knowing that she is not alone in her struggle. Many college students experience trouble in transitioning leading to adjustment disorders. Despite the wide-spread experience of adjustment disorders amongst first-year college students, there is limited information and research on the subject.

Oftentimes, adjustment disorders go away on their own as the person adjusts. However, this does not mean anyone should suffer in silence. In some cases, adjustment disorders can develop into full-blown anxiety and depression. This can all be avoided with treatment. Like Angelyn, Caitlyn, a student at Penn State, also struggled with anxiety due to an adjustment disorder when she first went away to college. She particularly struggled with the aspect of living in a dorm with a roommate. After receiving help for her adjustment disorder, she has finally started to feel at home at her university. For Caitlyn, therapy was effective at helping her manage symptoms and help her develop coping strategies she can use the rest of her life.

For many, college is the first big adjustment in a person’s life, and is often followed up by other changes like getting a full-time job or moving out. This makes college a good time to learn healthy coping methods needed for further big changes in the future. Every person experiences having an adjustment disorder differently. For many, adjustment disorders are treated by treating the symptoms that they present. For example, if a person is struggling with depressed moods as a result of their adjustment disorder, they may be helped by treatment used for depression like antidepressants or psychotherapy.

Fortunately, many college campuses have mental health resources that can be used to treat and alleviate the symptoms of adjustment disorders. College students struggling with adjustment disorders are never alone. There is likely someone in the same residence hall or lecture room going through the same thing. Adjustment disorders get better with time, and can be made more manageable through treatment. The prevalence of adjustment disorders on college campuses just show how necessary mental health services are for the college community.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Trauma and Stressor Related Disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596.dsm05

Frolo, C. (2020). How Freshman Year Played Into My Mental Health Diagnosis. Daily Collegian. https://www.collegian.psu.edu/news/article_dfecc84c-4934-11ea-be58-5bc2256b7a85.html#comments

Ramos, A. (2018). I Suffered From an Adjustment Disorder. Her Campus at Utah. https://www.hercampus.com/school/utah/i-suffered-adjustment-disorder

Rogers, L.S., & Tennison, L.R. (2009). A Preliminary Assessment of Adjustment Disorder Among First-Year College Students. In Archives of Psychiatric Nursing- Volume 23, Issue 3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0883941708001076

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