By Hannah Benson
“When first meeting someone, I’ve never said, ‘Hi, I’m Kelly and I’m bipolar, have panic attacks, and have slight OCD,'” states Kelly August, Elon University senior and advocate for mental illness and anxiety awareness.
“No one does that because we associate that level of vulnerability with weakness,” says August.
No one does that because it’s not the norm, it’s not acceptable and it’s not something that people know how to grapple with or can easily fix. It’s the topic of college student anxiety, and it’s not getting talked about enough.
From the first time you ever heard it mentioned by your parents in the recollection of some epic saga, you probably also took note of how challenging they said college was. You heard stories of late nights in the library, sleeping through classes and missing exams, but that was about the end of it. There was never any mention of nationally increasing levels of anxiety that had been bookmarked at higher than ever before. But, likely, this wasn’t an issue then.
High levels of anxiety on college campuses are evident in the alarmingly rising numbers of students seeking counseling and getting prescriptions for medicines to address stress and anxiety…But what is really going on here?
A study done at Boston University just this past year reported that Medical Clinicians at the university stated that the number of students who came in for help had sharply increased from 647 in the 2014-2015 academic year to 906 in the 2015-2016 academic year.
These numbers display trends similar to those released in a story about a Penn State study in 2014 that made national headlines, one whose results showed that anxiety had surpassed depression in college students as the leading mental health issue for college students. Over half of 100,000 students studied by Penn’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health reported that anxiety was one of their concerns. Additionally, the American College Health Association reported that one in six college students had been diagnosed with anxiety.
“This isn’t surprising” August says. “The amounts of pressure inflicted upon college students have also consistently increased as well. We live in a culture of competition dominated by a myriad of influences: GPA, organizational involvement, body image, honor societies, graduate school acceptances, job offers, etc. If we perceive that someone else is succeeding, we then compare ourselves, and fall under the weight of inadequacy because we never think we’re enough. This of course catalyzes feelings of anxiety, depression, and insecurity.”
The same survey by the ACHA found that a little over 20 percent of students said that anxiety had affected their academic performance within the last year, which was defined as getting a lower grade on an exam or important project, receiving an incomplete, or dropping a course.
That number has increased from 18.2 percent in the ACHA’s survey in 2008. Meanwhile, 13.8 percent reported that in the last year, depression had affected their academic performance, up from 11.2 percent in 2008. Another significant collection of evidence is found in survey data from studies like the 2004 Mental Health Task Force on Graduate Student Mental Health at the University of California Berkeley. This study surveyed its graduate students and revealed that 45% of them had experienced an emotional or stress-related problem in the previous 12 months that significantly had an affect on their well-being or performance. On another hand, the American Freshman annual survey from 2012 found that 30% of first-year college students report feeling frequently overwhelmed, with the number of women reporting this to be at its highest point, 40.5%, since the question was first asked for survey in 1985, at which time the levels were less than half of the current totals. Lastly, the AUCCCD 2016 survey reported that anxiety was the first of the top five concerns for college students, and that, on average, 65% of the students who sought help were female. .The annual survey gathered information from 529 counseling directors at universities serving over 6 million students.
These findings don’t come as a shock to BU’s mental health clinicians, who were knee-deep in similar findings themselves as evidence suggests that college students, as a group, have greater levels of stress and psychopathology than any time in the nation’s history.
Elon Student Student Counseling Services is the facility designated for all students at the university, ranging from those who are suffering from anxiety to those who simply want someone to talk to about their concerns. Time with a counselor at the university is free, and the sessions, as well as the subject matter discussed in each of these, are completely confidential. Students can get as many appointments with this facility as they desire.
Jennifer Brigman, a counselor at the school, when asked about student anxiety and mental health on college campuses, had this to say. “Here at Elon, our number of students who report anxiety as a concern is actually higher than the national college average, we’re in the 60 to 70th percentile as far as students who come in presenting anxiety in some form or another.”
“Keep in mind that anxiety has many faces,” says Brigman, “so sometimes they [students] come in presenting anxiety in the form of an eating disorder or OCD, or something along those lines. Anxiety, at the end of the day is a fear response—so, thinking about something that may happen in the future that is frightening for someone. The brain responds to that as if it’s real right now.”
“[People with anxiety] basically cause a fear response with a thought, and that happens when thinking about the past and the future, and, unfortunately, that’s where most of our brain activity is. Thinking about things that have happened or are going to as if they’re real, and how our brain responds to those is the experience that people are having when they have anxiety,” Brigman states.
Brigman spoke further about what might just be behind the whole anxiety scene in the first place, and her remarks are really eye-opening.
“Your generation was nurtured by technology, I mean, I bet college kids now don’t even remember a world before Facebook,” Brigman states. “My generation grew up centered around face-to-face communication and now, millennials
are hooked on a lifestyle that happens behind a screen, and this shift in culture is having influences on coping skills because all of your interactions are in little blue bubbles on your phone screen.”
“When I was in high school and college, Brigman explains, “Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat—these things didn’t exist, and so every interaction was face to face. So it’s huge in how our culture is shifting rapidly, and it’s having negative effects on our coping skills. That’s the problem, because pretty soon kids get to college and a lot of interaction is forced to be face to face, and you throw hormones and classes and hierarchies in sororities and the stress of being in a new place and kids start to develop anxiety.”
Dealing with anxiety from the professional side is the kind of subject matter that is taught in the Human Service Studies program here at Elon University, and junior Sydney Epstein, an HSS major, speaks to the problem as a student in the curriculum.
“I think that the stigma of going to see a therapist is slowly but surely changing as mental health issues become more revealed and discussed in society,” says Epstein.
“People these days tend to actually talk about seeing therapists, which gives the ok for others. I think that in order for the stigma to go away, media needs to stop treating therapists as ‘crazy people treaters’. If people were actually educated as to how important the therapeutic process is, there wouldn’t be any form of stigma, because people don’t realize how much it can help. There is definitely still a stigma but it’s less than it ever has been and hopefully on its way out altogether.”
Epstein and Brigman both agree on the issue that help, while available and plentiful, is often not sought by those who need it the most. There is a lapse here in the anxiety issue for college students. Brigman does assure, however, that there are some patients who have no issue with any kind of stigma, and who seek treatment regardless of how they feel others view it.
Annelyse Iglesias, a senior at Elon in the Human Services Studies program is quick to speak to the issue of stigmas surrounding counseling.
“The negative stigmas surrounding mental health and accessing mental health care, especially on college campuses,” says Iglesias, “have been brought to my attention throughout my time at Elon. Most, if not all, college students will feel stressed at one time or another, however, when those feelings are significantly impacting their daily lives, it’s important and encouraged that these people seek help.”
Iglesias shares a personal tie to the topic of anxiety in the first place, as she found herself having to overcome the hurdle of going to counseling herself to seek help for her anxiety.
“As a student in the fields of Human Services and Psychology, but also as a student dealing with anxiety, my education and personal experience with anxiety have shifted my mindset and the stigmas that even I myself had about seeking help,” she says. “The best advice I have is to find friends who support and encourage you to be your best self. I spent a lot of time thinking that I should deal with my anxiety on my own, but after taking the steps to seek help and open up to friends, I realized that there’s no way I would have gotten where I am today.”
Brigman hopes that Elon students know that there is no limit on the amount of time that students can sit down with a counselor in the health center. She is afraid that the fear that they will run out of time will push these students to seek treatment elsewhere, or keep them from coming in altogether. However, she does want to spread the word that counseling services is vibrantly understaffed, and that she feels they could double the staff to better serve the Elon community.
After hearing statistics, results, testimonies and advice, it’s time to consider how higher institutions in America are dealing with the rising concern. So, we ask ourselves, how are schools grappling with the issue?
The basic fact is this: the most direct way to tackle the root of student anxiety is to have each student sit down for therapeutic sessions to talk through their concerns with a counselor and develop a plan for moving forward. But, as has been evident through testimonies thus far, many students are resistant to seeking counseling, aren’t educated about how to do so, and often, counseling centers are lacking the numbers to tackle the amount of students needing help.
And, in reality, we understand that this isn’t as easy as it sounds.
But still, the effort to challenge this issue is there. Hundreds of universities around America have taken initiative and hosted stress-relieving events around finals, midterms or busy times of the semester.
For instance, Colgate University in New York promotes a holistic “stress-free zone” for students during finals where they can enjoy a calming atmosphere featuring Mediterranean cuisine, massages and yoga. Additionally, staff have been known to hand out fortune cookie-shaped stress balls. Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota holds something known as “dog days,” wherein the university
encourages faculty to bring their dogs to campus so stress-ridden students can unwind by playing with them. Colorado College in Colorado Springs hosts a contra dance party to help students relax. Bentley University of Massachusetts holds a “Breakfast at Midnight” event during midterms. The George Washington University hosts a “Comedy De-Stress Showcase” which is free to students and breaks up studying with some laughs. And, last but not least, Columbia University in New York has a tradition called the “Primal Scream,” where students join together and scream for a full minute at midnight the Sunday night before finals begin. Similar screaming traditions can be found at other schools like Cornell, UCLA, Harvard, Princeton and others, yet none match the long-standing reputation of Columbia’s.
Lauren Misage, a student at Cornell, attests that, “the pre-finals scream is one of my favorite traditions at Cornell – people are so angry and overwhelmed that it seems like they were going to go outside and scream in the first place, and one person just decided that we might as well do it together. It’s a big stress reliever.”
Even Elon University is known to put on events which soothe anxiety and provide a distraction during some particularly stressful times. These include things such as Cram Jam, a fun-filled event wherein the university’s Inter Residence Council brings in arcade games, acapella groups, candy buffets, free massages and breakfast food at night. Sometimes, if students are lucky, they can have breakfast served by President Lambert himself.
Elon sophomore and VP of Programming Alejandro Ramos had this to say when asked about the event, “When finals come around, many students become so caught up in thinking about their exams that they forget to think about themselves. IRC hosts events such as Cram Jam in order to give students a break from all their studying in order to relieve some of the stress that’s weighing on their minds.”
Other events that the university hosts to relieve temporary stress are occasional dog mixers where faculty and staff bring their dogs to campus to play with stressed students. All of these events, while fun, are temporary and really do little to solve anxiety, but merely delay it for a few hours.
With this being said, it is clear that colleges are aware of the anxiety issue and do take strides to provide students with stress relief, but these events rarely prevent anxiety in the long run.
So, what can be done, people are asking. The real answer is this: we cannot cure anxiety with the wave of a wand or a dosage of medicine, but we can encourage people to look positively upon therapy, and to raise awareness about its spread across campuses. The
more people that know, the more likely they are to tell their friends who may in turn tell their friends, and at the end of the day, the more likely they are to care.
This is where Kelly August comes in. For her Common Good Project, as a capstone assignment with Elon’s Leadership Fellows program, she organized a walk to raise awareness for mental illness, wherein students signed up to come out and show support and get the conversation started by wearing wristbands of a certain color and marching in unison around the university campus.
“I decided to create a walk to raise awareness for mental illnesses on Elon’s campus because I hated how invisible the community of support and solidarity was,” she says.
“I’ve learned over the last 6 years that vulnerability really highlights my authenticity,” August explains. “I knew I needed to devote myself to Steps Together because everyone is affected either directly or indirectly by mental illnesses. All I wanted to accomplish was to get people talking. Ultimately, I didn’t care about how many people showed up. I just wanted to plant the seed for conversation to begin blooming on this campus.”
August was a guest on ELN morning to speak about her campaign. Her interview can be watched below.
Other students are seen campaigning to raise awaren
ess and get the conversation started on campus as well, because they understand that this is the first step in chipping away at an issue far larger than themselves. For instance, Kathleen Shepherd, Elon sophomore, spearheaded a video campaign for her Working with Groups and Families class in the Human Service Studies curriculum wherein her group members asked students to write on a whiteboard what they could do to be aware of anxiety and mental illness. The students who participated were told to answer one of three prompts: what does mental health mean to you, how can we spread awareness, and how would you help out a friend? The video anonymously featured the students by not showing their faces in the footage.
When asked what inspired her to put this video together, Shepherd spoke about how she personally feels that the topic of anxiety awareness isn’t spoken about enough, and she felt that putting together a video like this could do just what August sought to, and get
that conversation started.
“It doesn’t get a lot of attention because it isn’t a spicy or wild topic, and it doesn’t really strike people as being new or attention-grabbing, but really it is so important that people are aware of these rising numbers,” Shepherd states.
Her class partner, Lindsay Reeth, agrees by adding, “We decided to make this video to make anxiety and mental health the kind of subject that people aren’t afraid to talk about. People should be able to discuss this issue openly, because it allows for that education and the raising of awareness.”
This raising of awareness is spreading slowly around our world, what with Prince Harry of the UK speaking out about his mental health issues since the death of his mother and how he has struggled to find help to treat his anxiety. He claimed, in an interview with the Washington Post, that he was doing it to encourage others to have the courage to do the same. He is spreading that awareness.
And at the end of the day, that seems like it’s the best that students can hope for.
Until there is a cure, making sure the subject of mental health and anxiety stay in the spotlight is the best we can do.