Internalized disorders such as anxiety and depression can affect children, adolescents, and adults. While these mental health conditions are caused in part by neurochemical differences in the brain’s limbic system – where emotions are generated and regulated – the environment can exacerbate these genetic vulnerabilities. Many of us only recall fond memories of our college years or mistakenly believe that college students enjoy a stress-free extended adolescence filled with endless parties and carefree days that begin at noon. In truth, troubling statistics are shifting our understanding of just how challenging postsecondary education can be to one’s mental health. According to TIME Magazine, colleges are reporting an unprecedented rise in the number of undergraduates seeking help for depression and anxiety.
National studies have tracked this trend for nearly a decade. This research portrays today’s Millennial (or iGen) undergraduates as uber-prepared academically but extremely vulnerable to becoming emotionally overwhelmed. In a 2011 study, the American College Mental Health Association reported that 30% of respondents reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” The same study found that 50% of the respondents reported “overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months. A year later, the same organization conducted a follow up national study with similar results. In that survey, 25% of college students reported diagnosis of or treatment for a mental health condition within the past year. Of these, 11% had anxiety and 10% had depression. Nearly 80% of the respondents felt “overwhelmed” by all they had to do.
In 2015, the JED Foundation published results of a similar study. The students reported solid confidence in their academic preparation but nearly 60% said they wished they had had more help preparing emotionally for college. Nearly half the sample reported feeling stressed most or all of the time during their freshman year of college. One year later, the National College Health Association reported that 40% of its undergraduate sample reported “feeling so depressed it was difficult to function” at some point in the prior 12 months. Not only have the rates of mental illness risen on college campuses, the severity of students’ behavioral health concerns has increased as well. According to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (2013), directors of college counseling centers were concerned about this trend and noted that 30% of students seeking mental health services reported serious suicidal ideation.
Anxiety is the most common mental health diagnosis in college students. In responding to its student mental health trends, Boston University’s Behavioral Medicine team published a three part series, “Mental Health Matters,” that provides current statistics and recommendations for evidence-based treatment approaches. Since life causes all of us to experience some anxiety from time to time, the authors sought to help students understand when they should seek professional help for their symptoms. Dr. Dori Hutchinson, director of BU’s Center for Psychiatric Research, wrote, “When your mood state interferes with your ability to function at school, like when you’re finding you can’t get to class, and you don’t want to hang out with your friends or teammates, and you’re having difficulty concentrating because you’re feeling so distressed – that’s when you want to reach” out for help.
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), these are among the most common symptoms of depression in college students:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feelings of hopelessness, pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Appetite and/or unwanted weight changes
- Thoughts of death or suicide; suicide attempts
- Restlessness, irritability
- Persistent physical symptoms, such as muscle pain or headaches
The good news is, there are many evidence-based approaches to treating anxiety and depression effectively. Most of them involve some combination of medication, therapy, and life style changes. Increasingly, exercise and mindfulness practices are being recommended as well. Many U.S. campuses are becoming proactive in addressing students’ mental health issues by infusing information, programs, and web-based supports into the campus culture. A college or university’s Disability Services office can provide accommodations for students who are addressing these challenges while taking classes. These resources strive to help students not feel alone when mental health challenges emerge and have ready access to coping strategies. More broadly, many campuses are stepping up efforts to strengthen students’ resilience and grit as they transition away from home and high school environments to minimize the emergence of mental health challenges.