The Canary in the Coal Mine: Mental Illness in College Students

NPR has great article on the mental health “epidemic” in colleges, inspired by The Stressed Years of Their Lives by Dr. Anthony Rostain, which looks at the mental health crisis among college students.

College students, like other demographics, are seeing major increases in mental illnesses. Among the rather depressing (no pun intended) statistics:

  • 44% of college students report symptoms of depression, but 75% of those students do not seek help.
  • Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among college students.
  • 80% of students report that they feel stressed on a daily basis.
  • 9% contemplated suicide in the past year.

Why is this jump so acute among college students? In the NPR interview, Dr. Rostain notes that there are a variety of new stresses an impacts on college students today, including a post 9/11 world, the remnants of the great recession, the rise of social media, school shootings, etc. These have all led to an explosion in depression and anxiety, as has the increased pressures which college students face to succeed.

Speaking broadly, I think, unfortunately, that this rise in mental illness among college students is reflective of what is to come. We know that mental illness rates are rising across the board – but we also know that those increases are sharpest among young adults, and sharper still among the youngest of those surveyed.

This has potentially devastating implications as this generation continues to shift into the real world and the workplace. Combine this with the rapidly exploding shortage of mental health practitioners, and the unabated rise of suicides…and we’ve got a big problem. One which will dramatically effect all of our lives.

Fundamentally, I continue to believe that this is a problem which goes well beyond the boundaries of normal public policy. There are things we absolutely must do to expand treatment, access and affordability so that Americans can get the help they need and deserve, no question. But we have to ask ourselves the broader questions: What is causing this rise of depression and anxiety?

These are real issues, and important questions, and ones which must be addressed if we are ever to truly be able to reduce the rates of mental illness and stress which are so prevalent in modern society today. Do I have the answers? Hell no. But I know it’s a question we have to ask.

Bringing this back to where we started: We shouldn’t look at the rising rates of mental illness in college students as something which is occurring in isolation or among a generation which simply hasn’t entered the real world. Given the rise of mental illness across the board, and particularly among young adults, we have to acknowledge that rising mental illness rates in younger demographics has the potential to effect this entire world. What kind of pressures will my children face? Your grandchildren?

Pay attention to this one. It will effect all of us in the future.

 

College and mental health

A friend of mine was kind enough to share with me this article in Time, an extremely eye-opening look at the massive spike in college students seeking mental health services – and college’s struggles to keep up with the demand. For those of you who are interested in this topic, I highly recommend that you read the entire article, because its a very comprehensive look at the issue.

The summary is this: More college students are in need of counseling services, but many colleges do not have the capacity to deal with these students mental health challenges. This shouldn’t be surprising: 75% of all mental health issues onset by age 24, and college is a time of transition where young adults are cut loose from all their previous moorings and experiences – thus shaking loose a good deal of mental illness, sadly.

Unfortunately, suicides in the United States have been on the rise since 1999, cutting across all demographics, and college is no exception. Even worse is that, many colleges do not actually track suicides, creating a major problem for dealing with this issue.

I will say that this is a deeply personal one for me. In the course of my mental health journey, I think I always suffered, even from the time that I was a little kid. It was my freshman year, however, when all hell broke loose. It was the first time I was away from home, from my family, my girlfriend and everything that I had previously known. I wasn’t ready for college and the experience of basically restarting my life, and I REALLY wasn’t ready for the “party” culture of college. I didn’t party – just the opposite – I was intimidated by everyone who did and didn’t know how to deal. As a result, my depression and anxiety exploded. Freshman year became the turning point for me – it’s the year I first started to suffer, but thanks to the counseling center at Muhlenberg, I had access to a great therapist who helped save my life by helping me develop strategies to deal with my depression and referring me to a psychiatrist who put me on the medication I still take to this day.

This issue is one of the reasons that, in my legislative career, I introduced legislation which would require colleges to develop and disseminate plans on dealing with mental health and suicide prevention. It’s a small step, but one that I think is desperately necessary to deal with this issue.

This is a major issue from a mental health perspective in this country, and one that we desperately need to deal with. The good news is that people are paying attention – and hopefully will continue to do so.