Opinion: The Truth About Mental Health in College

Pop culture depicts college as nothing less than a dream world — a world where anything is possible — and students are on the bright path to achieving their dreams.

In “Glee,” Rachel Berry, one of the main characters, becomes an instant Broadway star after graduating high school and attending the college of her dreams for just a few short months. In “Gossip Girl,” every character, except Blair Waldorf, gets into his or her top choice for college, and they all transition easily into their new living styles.

The constant theme here is that struggles do not exist in college. TV shows and movies, some of the biggest influences on today’s youth given the fact that they are ever-present, are telling teens and young adults that only sunshine and rainbows exist outside of the doors of their high schools.

For a rare few, this might be the case, but overall, it is a far cry from the truth.

The transition from high school to college has the potential to be utterly earth-shattering. Individuals move from their respective hometowns and must make a new home on a campus which is anything but familiar. Although the adjustment to college gets easier in time as students make friends become accustomed to their new living situation, this dramatic shift can be the culprit of breaking the stability of many students’ long-standing mental health.

The decline of some students’ mental health once college hits could be attributed in part to adjusting to new teaching styles and classroom settings, which differ immensely from high school. Furthermore, acclimating to a new social climate creates added stress in students day to day lives.

“College is a stressful time. Students are figuring out careers and finances and what to do after school, and just managing all the stress and all the expectations of doing well,” said Dr. Frank Kelemen, Director of Albion College’s Counseling Services. “I think there are also more students coming to school these days with mental health issues than have come in the past. There are more students coming to college who have previously received treatment, or are in treatment, or are taking medications. Because of that, there are a lot more students dealing with mental health issues who are successful in high school and can go on to college.”

Depression and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety rank as the most commonly treated mental disorders on college campuses, which is sensical given the uncomfortable feeling which accompanies moving away from home. In fact, a 2016 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association reported that 39.1 percent of college students claimed to be so depressed that functioning was difficult. Being pulled away from familiar people and routines makes students feel out of place and alone, and at times it can reach the point of feeling entirely hopeless. There is, however, a fine line between sadness and depression. Today’s youth often trivializes the importance of mental disorders by using the two terms synonymously, but they are vastly different. Feelings of hopelessness and difficulty functioning are two serious factors associated with depression which differentiate it from sadness. Sadness, on the other hand, is triggered by a specific event and, therefore, is much more ephemeral than depression.  

Anxiety, like depression, is often mislabeled, belittled and misunderstood. Just as depression differs from sadness, anxiety differs from stress. While all people feel stress in their lives here and there, anxiety is a different matter entirely. As Jake, a current student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, puts it, the feeling of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is comparable to how normal people feel when they walk into a classroom only to find that there is a pop quiz; their stomachs lurch, their heads swirl and panic grips them tightly. Having GAD, Jake says, is like having that feeling all the time.

Unlike other mental illnesses, anxiety does have some advantages, which is a reason why people tend to overlook its importance. Anxiety developed in order to evolve a flight-or-fight response in humans, or the ability to decide whether to stay or go in conspicuous situations. Anxiety can serve as protection, motivation and resilience, but only to a certain degree. At a certain point, anxiety becomes a destructive inner demon, one with a tendency to completely overtake an individual’s life.

Eating Disorders

While depression and anxiety might be the most common mental health issues treated on college campuses, they’re certainly not the only two. Eating disorders are a prevalent problem among students as well. Understanding why eating disorders develop or re-emerge after high school is incredibly understandable. Faced with all different types of pressure, ranging from social anxieties to school work, to developing a new routine, students may feel as though they can’t handle everything on their plate. Naturally, this can lead to a decline in self-esteem. With this lowered confidence, there comes a desire for a student to take matters into their own hands, and what better way is there to restore confidence than feeling self-assured in the way they look? Of the 35 percent of students who attempt to regain self-esteem through dieting, 20 to 25 percent will develop eating disorders.

A Universal Struggle

Other predominant mental issues on campuses include addiction, suicidal thoughts or actions, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Addiction and suicidal behavior alike tend to develop as coping mechanisms and forms of self-medication in the face of other mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD or PTSD. Students everywhere on all college campuses are struggling, and while some do get the help they require, others do not. The question is, why?

“Sometimes I think students don’t recognize that they’re struggling,” said Kelemen. “Sometimes students are ashamed of having problems or don’t want anyone to know about it; they think it’s a weakness. Everybody overlooks their own mental health. People don’t take care of themselves. People don’t get enough sleep. They use substances. They get depressed and make excuses, or they think it’s something else. I just think as human beings in general mental health isn’t something that’s very well recognized or supported.”

Although it is best to get preventative help early on, whether or not your journey with mental health is in its early stages, there is always hope. Luckily, college campuses are well accustomed to dealing with mental health struggles among the student population given its pervasiveness, and they are equipped with the proper resources.

Albion College, in particular, is furnished with plentiful resources to aid those who are battling their own inner demons. Counseling Services is staffed from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and there is always a counselor on call in case of emergencies. In addition, Albion students have a group therapy program which meets for an hour and a half once per week. The goal of the sessions is to raise self-awareness as well as gain support and advice from peers.

It is common for college students to struggle with mental health profusely. After all, college is a time and place of discovery; college students are faced with the immense pressures of finding their place in the world as well as finding out who they truly are. According to Kelemen, an estimated 25 to 30 percent of Albion’s student body utilizes counseling services each year. So, if you’re struggling, always remember this: you’re not alone.

Photo by Jordan Revenaugh

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.