Colleges help students destress as anxiety, depression rise
January 2, 2017 | By Jennifer Smola
The fluffy fur of Goldie the labradoodle provided a diversion from the stress of finals. The howl of Penny the Bluetick Coonhound blocked out the pressure of exams.
And for a little while, the pushing of a Crayola pencil on a coloring page helped cool the end-of-semester panic.
Students gathered at these various campus events ahead of finals last month at Ohio State University, but anxiety is a concern of college students all year long, and increasingly so.
Within the past decade, anxiety has replaced depression as the top mental health concern among students seeking counseling on college campuses, said Mickey Sharma, director of counseling and consultation service at Ohio State’s Office of Student Life.
Overall, visits to the counseling center at Ohio State continue to increase. In the 2016-2017 school year, general appointments totaled more than 36,000, up from about 20,000 in the 2011-2012 school year and about double the number of appointments a decade earlier.
The number of urgent appointments at Ohio State — scheduled after clinicians determine through a phone-triage system that an emergency appointment is necessary — is growing at an even faster pace.
An urgent appointment might be warranted when a student has been recently traumatized, a victim of a crime or assault, recently lost a loved one or is having significant thoughts of harming themselves or others, Sharma said. The university had more than 1,600 urgent appointments in the 2016-2017 school year, about a 50 percent increase over the previous year, Sharma said. That number is also more than triple the number of urgent appointments at Ohio State a decade earlier.
Some say anxiety had jostled its way to becoming a main student mental health concern as early as the mid-1990s. Even so, both anxiety and depression remain major concerns in the college mental health realm today, said Dr. Ben Locke, executive director for the Center of Collegiate Mental Health at Pennylvania State University.
“What we’re seeing is that among the reasons that students seek out counseling, anxiety and depression continue to be the most common but also the only two presenting concerns that are continuing to grow,” said Locke, who is also senior director for counseling and psychological services at Penn State.
Experts said that a number of factors contribute to the increasing number of students seeking counseling and the increasing presence of anxiety.
For one, the overall stigma surrounding mental health issues has decreased, and more students feel more comfortable seeking counseling and mental health services than in previous generations, they said. There also are more students coming into college having previously received counseling or mental health treatment.
Today’s fast-paced, interconnected society, often filled with news of tragedy or negativity, can contribute, too.
“Life has just gotten way more complicated,” said Dr. Fred Weiner, director of counseling and psychological services at Ohio University.
Sharma added that there are more tragic things happening in the world. “That news cycle is always there,” he said.
Mental health experts also are concerned about students’ coping skills and a general lack of resiliency among recent generations of college students.
Technology and social media can mean that students are constantly connected with others, but also that they’re not getting as many meaningful, interpersonal communications that often help one learn or develop.
Students also are used to getting answers and information instantaneously, Locke said. In previous generations when letters and cost-prohibitive long-distance phone calls were the only options for communicating, a student might have gone a week or two between conversations with friends and family. For example, you might not know for 10 or 15 days whether you still had a girlfriend or boyfriend, Locke said.
“You had to learn to live with all of that unknown,” he said. “The students coming to college today have grown up in a world where their questions are usually answered in minutes. When you come to college, there’s all kinds of unknowns that you can’t control.”
Today’s students also have grown up in super-structured environments, often within educational systems that demand competitiveness at a young age and with schedules jam-packed with extracurricular activities, Locke said. Add hovering parents ready to step in at any moment to help or push their children.
“A lot of students come to the university and they’ve never learned how to figure things out for themselves,” Weiner said.
Combined, these factors have led to a lack of resiliency that may drive students’ anxiety and other mental health concerns, experts said.
“They’re not developing coping mechanisms and resiliency the way we would want,” Sharma said.
Specific events last school year also likely contributed to the increase in general and urgent appointments at Ohio State, Sharma said. Students felt the effects of the tumultuous presidential election, he said. The campus terrorist attack in which 13 people were injured affected a number of students. And there were a number of unfortunate tragedies, including the death of a student after a fall from the top floor of a campus parking garage and the slaying of 21-year-old student Reagan Tokes, who was abducted, raped and killed after leaving her part-time job at a Short North bar.
Still, some students question the assertion that they’re not coping as well as other generations.
“I don’t know that it’s worse coping skills; there’s just kind of more to deal with and not a total positive outlook,” said Melina Taylor, a sophomore English and arts management major from the Cleveland area who took the opportunity to de-stress through the coloring event at the Ohio Union ahead of finals last semester.
“Everyone’s here because they want to get their education but everyone’s thinking, ‘I’m still going to be saddled with debt. I still might not get a job even if I get my degree,’” she added. “It’s just a lot of people not knowing really if things are worth it.”
It’s important for students’ family and friends to appreciate how stressful college can be today, Weiner said.
“The adults oftentimes feel like life shouldn’t be so difficult for college students,” he said. “The reality is, though, it’s not less stressful, it’s just different stressors.”
With anxiety increasing and depression not going away, colleges are figuring out how best to help their students.
Ohio State’s counseling center, for instance, added 12 new full-time clinicians last school year, and one this year. Students have a variety of counseling options, including drop-in sessions, group sessions and one-on-one, in-person counseling. The center also has a handful of therapists, stationed at certain parts of campus, such as the College of Engineering, to help students better access them.
Moving forward, colleges will have to begin figuring out how to “both encourage students to get the help that they need … while also not pathologizing normal anxiety and depression,” Locke said.