It’s quiet on my college campus now but you can be assured that, for the past couple of weeks, the stress-o-meter has registered extra high as students have been working ’round the clock to finish paper after paper after lab report after exam prep. Our library stays open 24 hours during finals and the students appreciate this, though it must get a bit intense in there.
For some students, the end of the semester can be especially challenging. If a student already has challenges such as anorexia nervosa, an anxiety disorder, or depression, the stress can be even more difficult to handle.
As reported in the December 20th New York Times, the number of college students with serious mental health needs is on the rise. As Dr. Jenny Hwang, the director of the counseling center at Stony Brook University, says:
“It’s so different from how people might stereotype the concept of college counseling, or back in the ’70s students coming in with existential crises: who am I?” said Dr. Hwang, whose staff of 29 includes psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and social workers. “Now they’re bringing in life stories involving extensive trauma, a history of serious mental illness, eating disorders, self-injury, alcohol and other drug use.”
Indeed, a recent survey by the American College Counseling Association has found that 44% of students seeking counseling have diagnosed psychiatric disorders already. (A PDF of the survey can be found here.)
It goes without saying that counseling centers are quite over-taxed. National surveys also reveal that more than half the student who visit college counseling centers have a serious mental health condition, which is more than double the rate of a decade ago. More students are taking psychiatric medications like Wellbutrin and ‘there are more emergencies requiring immediate action.’ Also, there is increased awareness and understanding about, for instance, bulimia, self-cutting and childhood sexual abuse, as well as more willingness among students to be open about these.
I went to college in the late ’80s at a substantial east coast institution. I can’t remember exactly, but I am quite sure that the counseling center staff was in the single digits. While I was there, both an eating disorders therapist and a therapist specializing in sexual harassment and assault were hired. Now the center has twenty individuals on staff, including a couple of M.D.s and two social workers.
And they are needed. At least three of my friends took leaves of absence from college due to serious mental illness, and one never finished her degree. One woman who was in my circle of writers/journalists, and whose actions left many of us at times concerned, took her own life about a decade after we had all graduated.
At the much smaller New Jersey college where I teach, I am quite sure that more than a few students struggle with similar issues. Many of my students are immigrants and also first-generation college students, and addressing issues of psychological health can be even more challenging due to their families and cultural and language barriers. My colleagues and I try to reach out to our students as much as we can and to keep our small counseling center informed about students who we are worried about.
But I know we can still do a lot more.
Photo by Nathan Csonka Photography.
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