Mental health issues on rise among college students


For some, going through the daily motions of college life may be more difficult than for others. There are many university students who struggle with mental illness, and the number is continuing to rise.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, mental illness is “collectively all diagnosable mental disorders or health conditions that are characterized by alterations of thinking, mood or behavior [or some combination thereof] associated with distress and/or impacted functioning.” Many college students across the nation understand this firsthand.

Joey Hermes, Topeka resident and spring 2012 graduate of Washburn University in Topeka, in psychology, said he was diagnosed with clinical depression when he was in high school. He said once he graduated from high school and experienced how hard it was to find a job, it made his depression worse.

“This may sound weird, but for me, it felt like there was something wrong with me,” Hermes said. “[It’s like] employers didn’t want to hire me, like I was worthless and useless and had no skills.”

Hermes isn’t the only recent graduate or current college student who suffers from depression. Chase Fox, junior in criminology, also suffers from depression.

“I just wish there were more people to talk with about these things,” Fox said. “Not just counseling services, but other people that you can just meet up with at a coffee shop and talk about your day. It would make a person’s day, just knowing that someone cares about [them] being alive enough to sit down and talk with [them] about life.”

Mental illness is a serious problem for a large percentage of college students. According to the 2011 American College Health Association Survey, almost one out of every three students reported feeling so depressed within the last 12 months that it was difficult to function. About 45 percent of students felt things were hopeless and 50 percent felt overwhelming anxiety. That means, on any given day, one out of every two people were and are dealing with some kind of mental illness overwhelming enough to affect their daily lives.

“Being in a building for countless hours makes me crazy,” Caren Chellgren, third year veterinary medicine student, said. “There were [and have been] many times I have left school crying or having a panic attack. Everything just tends to build until I break.”

With the continuing rise in mental illness, there is no specific answer as to what is causing this phenomenon. Chellgren said she thinks it’s because of the pressure to succeed.

“You have to have certain grades to get an internship, but also need to spend time with the instructors to impress them,” Chellgren said. “You need to have a job [in your field while still in college] because you need experience in your field.”

Fox said he agrees that external factors have a lot to do with college students’ mental health. He said there are a lot of external factors like school, life and jobs that all affect our mental health. He said he thinks there are many more cases of mental health problems that have flown under the radar and that he thinks the rate of mental health problems among college students has increased just based on how our society is.

Chellgren, Fox and Hermes all attend or have attended universities within Kansas. Mallory Nelson, junior in geology and environmental science at Winona State University in Winona, Minn., has spent her entire college career struggling with severe anxiety. She said her anxiety levels fluctuate, but college has definitely made them a major part of her life.

“School asks a lot of me,” Nelson said. “My anxieties seem to intensify as things get more demanding. There doesn’t seem to be a large support community for any mental health issues, especially when it comes to things outside of depression. My mental health issues are often written off as me being too intense or too Type-A [personality].”

College students are continually faced with the difficult tasks of being a part of many facets of university life aside from just being a student. Some students are a part of greek houses or chapters, student organizations, hold a job or two or three, or volunteer. Students’ time is taken up with a lot outside of academia.

According to a Nov. 5, 2012 article by Ruth Harper and Meghan Peterson from NACADA, the National Academic Advising Institute, “more than 60 percent of entering freshmen indicate that they spent less than six hours per week studying, even though 90 percent earned a high school grade point average of B or higher. Inadequate study habits create enormous stress and anxiety for college students.”

Housed here in Manhattan, NACADA works on making academic advising more beneficial for students. A special section of this institute focuses on mental health and trying to catch triggers and signs early, before the problem becomes severe.

Staff at K-State Counseling Services have observed that students often come into college ill-equipped to deal with the issues that come along with higher education. Kathryn Tolle, licensed psychologist at Counseling Services, said there have been two key narratives shared by students who come in needing emergency help.

“On one hand, there has been an increase in medication and treatment at earlier ages,” Tolle said. “Receiving treatment and having that treatment work is important. But coming to college, sometimes that treatment stops because students are caught up in college life. The other [common theme] is the [university] is expanding. We may or may not bring accepting people who are properly equipped to handle college, like even study skills.”

Rachel Asmirian, spring 2012 Arizona State University alumna with a degree in psychology and family and human development, has had mood disorders most of her life. She said she has struggled with mental illness since she was 15 years old. Asmirian said she thinks all people are prone to mental health issues but thinks students in college have higher rates of mental illness due to environmental factors like heavy use of drugs and alcohol, stress, peer pressure and overall big changes.

“I had a lot of anxiety [when I was in college] and homework took me a lot longer to do than most people,” Asmirian said. “It was also difficult for me to go to class when I was in a depressive episode. People need to take things slow and not feel like they have to overwhelm themselves with classes, clubs or another extra work they don’t necessarily need to do. Also, make sure to seek out the support they need to get through it all.”

Mental health issues among college students who are currently enrolled or have recently graduated is common. Locally, there has been an increase in people seeking help for mental health problems. According to the K-State Counseling Services 2013 Annual Report, there were 11,233 direct contact visits in 2013, whereas in 2012, there were 10,467. That is 766 more direct service contacts that students, staff and faculty have requested from Counseling Services.

Though college students and the K-State community have requested more services than in previous years, that is not what is reflected nationally. When college students don’t seek help, they are more prone to leaving the institution. According to a 2012 report, “College Students Speak: A Survey Report on Mental Health,” from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 45 percent of young adults who stopped attending college because of mental health related reasons did not receive accommodations. Fifty percent of them did not access mental health services and support either.

Within a city like Manhattan, there are multiple options for students and community members. On campus, K-State offers Counseling Services. For students, the first four individual session appointments are free, the next five are $15 an hour, and sessions after the first 10 cost $25 an hour. For non-K-State students, Pawnee Mental Health, located at 437 Houston St., will work with some insurance companies to see patients and help with mental health needs. If people are in eminent danger, such as physical self-harm or physical harm by someone else, they should call 911 or visit a doctor or emergency room.

“You don’t have to be afraid to get help,” Chellgren said. “There is such a stigma to mental illness, and the biggest thing is to admit that you need help. There are so many people who suffer from the same things. You are not alone.”