Our next installment of the 1,000 Journeys series, set to be published tomorrow, will focus mental health struggles that take place during college. Here, Claire offers some background information so you can have a better understanding of the situation before reading the next story.
Those two words promise a fresh start in a way that few other words do. No matter where you go to college, it is always a life-changing experience. For better or for worse... that's the part that's up in the air. Frankly, I don't think I'm alone in saying my freshman year was one of the most fun times of my life while simultaneously being one of the hardest. I expected the start of college to be both exciting and difficult, and MIT exceeded my expectations on both counts.
The newfound independence was a rush. It's not like my parents fit that "Asian tiger parent" stereotype. It was just that I suddenly had complete control over my time. I didn't have to ask for a ride or pick up my little brother from soccer practice. I could just walk around and explore Boston whenever I wanted. I took advantage of that several times. At the same time, I was discovering new passions like dance and meeting people who were just as excited about math as I was. It was a good time.
Except when it wasn't. I'd moved away from a home I loved, school was suddenly much harder than it had ever been, and I was just trying to stay afloat. The fall semester threw some life challenges my way. That November, my grandmother was killed in a car crash a few weeks after an uncle died in surgery. I felt guilty for not being home to support my mother through the deaths of a parent and a sibling. Then at the end of the semester, I went through a breakup with a boy I'd be dating for several years. Dealing with all of this on top of trying to adjust to college could sometimes feel overwhelming.
While everybody's freshman year will be different from others, my experience of both enjoying and struggling through it is not unique. Today, I'd like to talk about some of the unique challenges in addressing mental health on campus. I'll also touch on some solutions from experts and students that have been proposed to alleviate these problems.
WHAT'S UP WITH MILLENNIALS?
As mental health services in colleges around the country began to report higher demand, Pennsylvania State University's Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) set out to see what caused the change. The center knew that schools were increasing enrollment, so they set out to see whether that was the explanation. Surprisingly, their 2015 report showed that the rising rate of demand for counseling services was not only greater, but five times higher than the growth rate of the student body.
So, what's the matter with today's college students? Some pundits argued that today's students had lost coping skills, a phenomenon encouraged by the introduction of "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings." These young people, they argued, are so sheltered that they can no longer handle the same pressures their parents did. These young people are so conditioned to instant gratification in this digital age that they don't know what to do when they don't get what they want. Or so the argument went.
Although we discussed the harmful effects of the World Wide Web in a previous post, other experts disagree with that opinion. In an interview with the Atlantic, a student mental health advocate named Hannah Nguyen said, "I think students are realizing it’s okay to talk about mental health ... it doesn’t make you any different or less or weaker in any way." CCMH Executive Director Ben Locke echoed Nguyen's idea, saying, “We have changed the threshold at which people say, ‘Hey, you should get some help,’ so that more students and community members are willing to make that [referral] sooner.”
The debate it seems, is still up in the air. Does this increase come from a loss of student resilience, societal changes caused by the Internet, or a decrease in stigma on campus? I believe it's probably a combination of the latter two. From the expert perspective of a real millennial, I've met too many inspiring peers to believe we are a soft generation. In fact, some of the strongest people are honest about their struggles and willing to look for professional treatment - they are the very same people those "experts" would call weak-willed. It seems the real disagreement comes from our definitions of strength. I stand by my own.
WHAT HAPPENS IN COLLEGE?
College demands change. Most students suddenly have to find a new social circle, adjust to dorm life, decide on a career path, and pass their classes. Special circumstances can also make these tasks more or less challenging for you than they are for others. Maybe you're stuck with a roommate you don't get along with, or maybe you're relieved to get away from your family's bickering. It's different for everybody.
The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) recently published a guidebook introducing college mental health issues called Starting the Conversation. (You can download and read the whole thing here.) The guide also points to increased access to drugs and alcohol. Left unchecked, using these to cope with stress can lead to a substance abuse disorder. Certain drugs can also increase the risk of psychosis in those with a high risk of serious mental illnesses.
Perhaps the most damaging change though, is the loss of a consistent support system. Whether they are your parents, your friends, or your sports team, everybody has a safety net back home. These are people who have known you long enough to notice when something is off. They also care enough to ask you about it. You must give that up to go to college. Everybody is only a phone call away of course, but you're no longer seeing them everyday. And the people you do see most frequently in college - your roommates and classmates - probably aren't very familiar with your personality yet. When you stay in bed for a whole day because you don't have enough motivation to leave your room, they think that you're just catching up on sleep.
COLLEGE-BY-COLLEGE CASE STUDIES
There are thousands of two- and four-year colleges around the United States. I have only been to one. Curious about what mental health is like in other schools, I interviewed students at other universities about what mental health is like in their schools. Here are some of my insights from those conversations.
University of Rochester
According to one student, U of Rochester has done some work on decreasing stigma, but many conditions are omitted from the conversation. She said, "I have never once heard people openly discussing schizophrenia despite the fact that its symptoms start to appear most often during college years." This shyness when talking about less common mental disorders seems to be a common trait among schools.
The student also described a counseling system that has many resources, some of which are not fully developed yet. "On my campus, we are fortunate to have a counseling center with a 24/7 emergency on-call line and clubs on campus that address mental illness. However, the counseling center remains understaffed and underfunded." She also said that a lack of awareness on campus means that "students most in danger and in need of help end up receiving the least support."
A student here proposed that mental health "isn't just an issue in Stanford but in Palo Alto." The university's stadium stands just across the street from Palo Alto High School. It looms large over the campus, and it seems that many become preoccupied with the school from a young age; some 20,000 high school students attend Stanford's summer programs. Essentially, it becomes something of a gold standard that reigns over many family's minds. The student told me about a time when a classmate's parent was complaining that her other son hadn't gotten into Stanford because their admissions program "hates Asian males." Where was he headed off to instead? Columbia University.
Stanford, like many highly selective schools, also tends to pull students from extremely competitive high schools. The competition shows itself in many ways, but often it is simply the drive to do more and more. "You hear about a friend doing summer research, so you feel like you have to do it." She continued, "there are so many opportunities, I think kids feel compelled to do it all." The result is a group of students who are already burned out before they even step foot on campus.
University of Pennsylvania
In 2014, Madison Holleran, a popular and beautiful track star at UPenn, ended her life. Sportswriter Kate Fagan set out to tell her story in the book What Made Maddy Run. In an interview with NPR, Fagan candidly discussed the way students present themselves on campus. "It's this relentless pursuit of achievement," Fagan said, "and when you look around at Penn, you see 'Penn Face,' which is happy, easy, everything is coming naturally — whereas below the surface, everything is like this furious pedaling."
One UPenn student suggested that Penn face might exist because the school has a "competitive and not entirely collaborative atmosphere, so talking about your struggles may come off as a weakness." She also pointed out that students "compare themselves too much to others' highlight reels. You never see how much people struggle for their success."
NEXT STEPS: ADMINISTRATION
If a college wants to commit to its students' mental health, it must understand that those with serious mental illnesses can be the hardest to reach. No matter how many posters you put up to spread awareness of campus counseling options, a depressed student might not leave their room to see it. No matter how close the medical center is to the dorms, a student with high-functioning anxiety might be too terrified of being seen along the way. These students are elusive, but that doesn't mean they should have to suffer in silence.
Technology may provide avenues to connect those students with mental health services. Ramapo College in New Jersey offers an anonymous online mental health screening. The website contains several disclaimers telling users that the tool is not a replacement for in-person therapy. Still, the tool may help convince somebody who is withdrawn that they need to schedule an appointment. And of course, other useful technologies may be developed in the future as well.
In terms of fixing the existing system, universities need to re-examine their priorities. Fagan, who wrote about the track star from Penn, questioned the school's budget. "I think when you compare the millions of dollars that are poured into the physical health of athletes with the small potatoes that are often put into their mental health, it's really easy to see why so many student athletes don't really feel like there's a place within the athletic department for them to speak openly about how they might be feeling." To be fair, athletics programs can generate tens of millions of dollars of revenue. However, investing in mental health infrastructure can result in more students graduating, a coveted statistic for colleges that are mindful of their rankings.
NEXT STEPS: STUDENTS
Students who want to be active on campus have many ways of doing so. Mental health awareness groups are always looking for people to join or to staff events. You can also take up a mentoring role like an RA and make sure your students are aware of the warning signs of mental illness. Or you could join student government and advocate for improved mental health resources.
But the most important step for students, families, and faculty to take is simply to keep the conversation going. This does not mean talking about depression immediately after a high-profile suicide, then letting the topic drift off a few weeks later. We need comprehensive, long-lasting discussion on this topic. Only by doing so will we be able to think of effective solutions.