Stressed-Out Undergrads And The College Mental Health Crisis

In case you missed it this morning taking your possibly stressed-out kids to school, check out On Point's excellent segment about the mental health crisis among college students.

The bottom line: undergrads are struggling, many of them suffering from mild, moderate and severe mental illness. And colleges are scrambling to figure out ways to cope, from setting up automated counseling kiosks to launching campaigns promoting the message that it's all right to ask for help.

A special report, "An Epidemic of Anguish," published in The Chronicle of Education is featured on the show:

“Colleges are trying to meet the demand by hiring more counselors, creating group-therapy sessions to treat more students at once, and arranging for mental-health coordinators who help students manage their own care. A couple of colleges have even installed mental-health kiosks,which look like ATMs and allow students to get a quick screening for depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe reports that MIT, a well-known hotbed of stress, is enhancing its mental health services for students:

Starting this academic year, the Cambridge school will provide more mental health counselors, create a drop-in center for students to talk with professionals, and make it easier for students to seek professional services off campus.

The changes come after campus officials reviewed the results of a survey administered to students in April and May, which found that 24 percent of undergraduate respondents have been diagnosed with one or more mental health disorders by a health professional.

Alli Stancil/Flickr
Alli Stancil/Flickr

The reality that many college students suffer from mental illness isn't exactly new. Earlier this year, for instance, researchers at UCLA surveyed 150,000 college freshman and found an increase in the number of students who report they were "frequently depressed."

I asked child psychiatrist Dr. Steve Schlozman, associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, about the UCLA report back in February and whether depression among college-age kids is getting worse, and he said: "We are reaping what we sow." He added:

The pressure we put on high school kids to get into college and the pressure then that college follows up with is highly correlated with increased rates of emotional distress that can become full-blown depression. Also, the age of onset of depression is the exactly the age of onset of college — there’s a perfect storm of stressors. Finally, there’s a greater willingness to come forward, which is good. So, despite the fact that we’re using the word ‘depression’ a little more glibly, I’d rather have that and then rule out clinical depression through appropriate channels, like college health services, than miss cases that can lead to real suffering and possibly even death.

Now, Schlozman says, it makes sense for colleges to boost their efforts to make mental health services more accessible. In an email, he writes:

It makes sound ethical, medical and common sense for colleges and universities to increase their surveillance for mental health challenges as the school year begins, and to provide easy and unfettered access for ongoing care. Ideally, a comprehensive plan that has multiple and coordinated entry points and multiple and coordinated means by which care is delivered is the best way to provide the essential help that the last two decades have shown us is sorely needed on college campuses.

For more on how to improve the situation, we had Schlozman and his colleague Dr. Gene Beresin on our podcast, The Checkup, offering some professional advice to parents of college students. Here are a few of their tips"

Be Prepared

It is likely your kid will experience a mental health problem or encounter one in a roommate or classmate. Discuss this, and talk about what to do if it happens. You might say, “Talk with some adult to get advice. This could be me, a dorm advisor, or mental health counselor. Don’t think things will just pass. They could get worse.”
Inform your kids about the mental health realities.

Don’t Worry About Stigma

Of course there is stigma associated with psychiatric illness. Our culture will not change overnight. One in four people will have a psychiatric disorder during the course of life. Worrying that this will be a black mark on your child’s record is natural but there should be even greater worry if mental illness goes untreated. Many individuals who are highly successful have had psychiatric treatment and this does not interfere with success in their career or in relationships. Quite the contrary. Help may prove invaluable for functioning in life.

Talk With Your Kids About Mental Health and Illness

It is one thing for us as parents to get the best information about psychiatric problems, relationship and drug issues. But your kids need this information too. They are living with this; they see their friends in trouble. Involve them in all of the tips described here. You will be surprised how much they want to know, what they have seen and their receptivity. Engage them. Let them know they’re not alone. Opening this door will serve them well, and is more likely to help them feel comfortable to talk about themselves and their experiences without feeling judged.

Get Help Early

The earlier your kid gets services for any emotional, behavioral or learning problem the better. While mental illness is misunderstood and the system is very difficult to navigate even for the best educated (even by doctors), most psychiatric disorders can be successfully treated. The key is early intervention and prevention of complications.

Sleeping and Eating For Body & Mind

This may seem banal and irrelevant but getting enough sleep and not living on ramen goes a long way in retaining sanity. Remind your kid that pulling frequent all-nighters to study may be harmful to their long-term well being. Getting into a daily exercise routine can also alleviate stress in a profound way.

Back in 2012 an MIT undergrad, Lydia K. wrote a blog post about her mental "meltdown" that resonated deeply in the community, and among students at campuses around the country. In her piece she wrote:

“I don’t think many people understand what we mean when we say that MIT is hard. It’s not just the workload.

There’s this feeling that no matter how hard you work, you can always be better, and as long as you can be better, you’re not good enough. You’re a slacker, you’re stupid...There’s stress and there’s shame and there’s insecurity. Sometimes there’s hope. Sometimes there’s happiness. Sometimes there’s overwhelming loneliness.”

Headshot of Rachel Zimmerman

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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