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.

Mental Health & College

As I wrote yesterday, depression and mental health is a hugely personal issue for me.  I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety in some form or fashion since I was in 8th grade, but didn’t actively seek treatment for it until college, when the adjustment to a brand new environment, combined with my already existing issues, pushed me into therapy.

I was lucky.  I graduated from Muhlenberg College, and Rick at the counseling center saved my life Freshman year.  And yes, I do mean that literally.  He got me through the transition into college, the breakup with my girlfriend from home, and a slew of other challenges.  When it became apparent that talking wasn’t enough, he helped me locate a psychiatrist at home who first prescribed me medication.

The reason I have been thinking about this is because of my real job.  As part of it, I’ve been reading a fascinating, in-depth study on suicide in college students, complete with specific recommendations for how to reduce them.  This, naturally, brought me back to college, and had me thinking about how lucky I was.

But what about those who aren’t so lucky?

Look, college is insanely stressful.  It’s a time period in which many mental health challenge first manifest themselves (75% of all mental illnesses onset by age 24), and that’s why it is so important that college students (well, everyone, obviously) have knowledge about what sort of mental health resources are available to them – and access to them in the first place.

I did a little bit more research into the specific issue of colleges and mental health.  The results are difficult to swallow.  According to this USA Today article, the issue is rapidly becoming an increasing problem on campus.  A survey of college administrators said that mental health is their top concern on campus.  The same article also found:

“…institutional enrollment grew by 5.6% between 2009 and 2015, while the number of students seeking services increased by 29.6%, and the number of attended appointments by 38.4%.”

There’s actually good news in this article:

This new demand for mental health services reflects a number of positive trends — breaking down of stigmas, more diverse student bodies, greater access to college. But it also puts colleges in a difficult position.

Many colleges – like Muhlenberg – have their own counseling centers on campus.  Students can confidentially make appointments and talk about their problems with a trained professional.  And, as these studies illuminate, this is exactly why it is so important that all colleges have some sort of mental health support system.  Three things in particular strike me:

  1. Colleges must have easily accessible mental health resources, be it on-campus counseling centers or the ability to refer a student to a trained professional off campus.
  2. Colleges must be aggressive in letting their students know what resources are available to them.  The greatest counseling center in the world isn’t going to do a lick of good if students don’t know what’s there for them.  This is why legislation like Madison’s Law is so important.  This proposal, recently enacted in New Jersey and named after Madison Holleran (a University of Pennsylvania Freshman who killed herself), requires that:

    An institution of higher education shall have individuals with training and experience in mental health issues who focus on reducing student suicides and attempted suicides available on campus or remotely by telephone or other means for students 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The individuals shall also work with faculty and staff on ways to recognize the warning signs and risk factors associated with student suicide.

    No later than 15 days following the beginning of each semester, an institution of higher education shall transmit to each student via electronic mail the contact information of the individuals required pursuant to subsection a. of this section.

    In Pennsylvania, this legislation has been introduced by my colleague, Rep. Tim Briggs.

  3. We must continue to endeavor to destimagtize mental illness.  The stigma that surrounds mental health continues to keep people away from available treatment.  That’s why anti-stigma campaigns – and putting a personal face to mental illness – is so important.

I’ll certainly have more to say later, but this is obviously an important issue when it comes to mental health.  And one more thing: The more I dive into this area, the more I find just how important it is to not approach mental health as a monolithic block.  We have to approach each subgroup differently (college students, first responders, LGBT, etc) while pushing towards the overall goal of reducing stigma and helping all people find peace.