The numbers are startling. National studies have shown that one in three college students is depressed and one in four contemplates suicide.
Why are young people so much more anxious and stressed than previous generations? What can be done to solve this problem?
The student health director at Washington University in St. Louis says recognizing the signs of depression and suicidal tendencies and keeping the lines of communication open are key to diverting a tragedy.
“I think that depression and suicide are the largest health issues facing college students at this time,” says Alan Glass, M.D., director of Student Health and Counseling and a member of the American College Health Association’s board of directors. “Universities have realized that more and more resources are going to need to be focused on these areas.”
Glass acknowledges that while there has been an increase in the prevalence of mental health issues on college campuses over the last several years, no one really knows why the increase is happening.
“Students are definitely under more stress than they have been in previous generations,” Glass suggests. “I think competition is a big part of that stress. Students not only need to get into college, there is growing pressure to be accepted at a top academic institution. Pressure about what school kids will get into can sometimes start as early as junior high. It’s no longer good enough to just get into college. Students feel pressured to get into a selective school and more are getting advanced degrees.”
Academic pressure once students arrive on campus can also be a big stressor.
“One of the more difficult things for freshmen is that they’ve been at the top of their high school classes and they come to college and start getting Cs and worse,” Glass says. “That can be a real shocker for students used to getting straight As.”
Glass adds that many of the problems that college students face can sometimes start long before they arrive at school. “Many students come to colleges and universities with a history of psychological problems,” he says. “Students arrive already having started various medications for depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorders.”
Sept. 11th’s impact
Glass sees Sept. 11 as playing some part in that.
“The world has definitely gotten more complex in the years since Sept. 11,” Glass says. “In the last few years, I’ve noticed that students are under more financial pressure than they were previously. Finances are tightening up for families. There is also less money available to colleges and universities for financial aid and scholarships. Students’ parents may be going through some financial stress as a result of changes in our economy. That can rub off on the student.”
Maybe even more importantly, Sept. 11 affected the nation’s basic sense of security. “The instability in the world affects college students more than people think,” Glass says. “College students tend to be a lot more globally minded these days and they think about the larger issues facing our nation and our world. That can be terribly stressful.”
“Colleges and universities need to increase services and resources focused on mental health issues,” Glass says. “They also need to provide easier access to mental health services and do more outreach programs on campus. Every student who has depression and anxiety issues does not show up at the counseling center.”
One of the ways of providing outreach is to educate people who come into contact with students every day — parents, professors and friends. “Folks who deal with students on a daily basis are the ones who will recognize the symptoms. It’s important to educate the community and make them aware of the resources available to them.”
Glass says key to getting depressed students the help they need is to watch for the signs. These can include reclusive behavior, increase in drug and alcohol use, and sudden changes in financial and relationship issues.
“I really believe that keeping open the lines of communication between parents and students is essential,” Glass says. “I say this to parent groups all the time — ‘If you think something might be wrong and you feel you should get help for your child, do it. That instinct is often correct.'”