The Mental Health Crises in College Students
College is typically a season of life that symbolizes independence, celebration and freedom. Many times, these students are going off to live without their parents for the first time in their lives. It is exciting, new and filled with lots of temptation and responsibility. The experience of moving away from home can bring up several different emotions for students and then mix that with the demands of a challenging semester, sports and social pressures-- it is a recipe for a whole combination of uncomfortable feelings.
What Is Happening?
As well as college being a significant developmental time and filled with big emotions, it is also the age of onset for most lifetime mental heath disorders. The age of onset for lifetime mental health disorders coincides with the traditional college years, as 75% of mental health disorders begin to onset before the age of 24. Many times students are transitioning into this new role of independence without their familiar parental support and while experiencing new mental and physical health symptoms.
College Students and Anxiety/Depression
In a study conducted between 2013-2021, researchers found that the mental health of college students had been on a consistent decline for all eight years. They discovered that there was 135% increase in depression in students and 110% increase in anxiety in students in the United States throughout that eight year time span. The most concerning data that was identified was that the number of students experiencing a mental health crisis had doubled throughout the eight years.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. There are approximately 1,100 suicides on campus each year.
College Students and Substance Use
Many college students begin to use substances as a way to cope with the onset of mental health disorders, the pressures of academics and the constant social interactions. College students are at a higher risk of addiction due to being one of the largest population of drug abusers. About 37% of college students regularly used illegal drugs or abused alcohol. Substance use is closely linked to mental illness as studies prove that 37% of alcohol users and 53% of illegal drug abusers also have at least one serious mental illness. Substance use in college is associated with several negative outcomes including lower academic performance and a higher risk of experiencing trauma.
Colleges and universities are having a difficult time keeping up with the needs of students as the demands for mental health counsel on campus continues to increase. Most colleges now have counseling and mental health services on campus which is great progress and speaks directly to diminishing the stigma attached to mental health. However, in most cases students are required to fill out a questionnaire prior to receiving therapy services and if the student is not presenting to be in a life threatening crises they will not meet the requirements to see a counselor on campus because of the high demands and because of staffing/funding issues at schools.
Why It Is Happening?
There are a few theories out there on what is causing the mental health crises among college students in the United States. Some believe that social media has been the catalyst for an increase in mental health issues and others believe that the problems start at home with the student’s family of origin.
Studies have suggested that social media has been detrimental to the mental health of girls and young women. From 2009-2019, researchers tracked social media use and the mental health of about 500 teens. The study found that social media was highly affecting young girls. Girls about the age of 13 using social media for 2-3 hours a day were at a much higher risk for suicide in early adulthood. This was attributed to the fact that girls are naturally more sensitive to interpersonal matters and social media is generally all about relationships.
Most times when we discuss problems at home and issues with a student’s family of origin we are referring to adverse childhood experiences. The ACES, that include parental separation, childhood trauma and neglect. However, the very opposite of that would be considered to be helicopter parenting and studies have suggested that helicopter parenting can be a major predictor in adulthood suicidal ideations.
A 2013 study followed 297 students and found that college students that had helicopter parents had significantly higher levels of depression. Helicopter parenting can be invasive to a child’s privacy, can be harmful to their self esteem and development of self confidence and prevents children from learning how to cope with uncomfortable feelings and circumstances.
What Can We Do About It?
This information can be disheartening and alarming for both college students and for parents sending their children to higher education in hopes for a brighter future. There is no way to avoid the developmental period that happens to coincide with college years and there is no way to avoid the onset of any mental health disorders during that time period.
As students we will not be able to control everything that we think and we feel and as parents, we cannot control the experiences that our children will have as they grow older in life. We can only be knowledgable and aware to be prepared for that season of life and for whatever it entails.
To set college students up for success we can teach them independence and give them experiences of freedom prior to attending college. We can teach them coping mechanisms for big emotions and uncomfortable feelings to help them feel confident in their ability to handle change and life transitions when moving into adulthood.
If we feel that we are a college student and we need extra support outside of our college campus, please reach out to an outside therapist or counseling center. We can seek counseling outside of our campus and many therapists will see students via Telehealth to help with any transportation issues.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hey, I'm Brooke! I'm a licensed anxiety and addiction therapist serving individuals, adolescents and couples in the state of New Jersey. My experience brings both a personal and professional perspective to the work that I do with my clients. If you are interested in learning more about the therapy process and would like to schedule a free consultation, I would love to chat with you!