What's Causing the College Student Mental Health Crisis?

Patient Expert
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What’s the current state of college mental health?

College is said to be the best years of your life. But for many college students struggling with mental health issues, their response may very well be: fat chance! For them, this time is anything but wonderful.

While every generation has seen its share of mental illnesses, the college students of today are particularly susceptible to issues such as anxiety, depression, suicide, eating disorders, or addiciton that are best to categorize as a mental health crisis. The problems are out there, and there are a lot of them.

The causes

Things have changed in the last 20 to 30 years. Our society is experiencing a series of upheavals.  For one thing, social media shapes our lives, even if we do not personally partake in it. The prevalence of social media means that we are expected to always be "on." We are expected to move on most decisions quickly. And we are also expected to present a brave and cheerful face to all and sundry, 24/7. Nobody Instagrams the ugly but delicious chili they had for lunch. No one goes into detail when talking about their problems on Facebook, for fear of future employers reading and judging. Everyone is "fine." Everything is awesome. The internet is ephemeral as content disappears or is buried under the avalanche of new content. At the same time, the internet is forever, as poor judgment comes back to haunt us in unexpected ways.

Then there’s the hovering and the helicopter parenting. The participation medals all make people feel good in the moment and then, later, they don’t have the experience of what it’s like to not be the absolute best. For previous generations, not being in first place meant that they experienced disappointment and maybe envy or sadness. But it was in a safe place and the stakes were not so high. When bigger disappointments happened later in life, a person would be prepared.

But today’s college students have no such early failures in their resumes. Grade inflation in high school does not help. And so they expect perfection, as do their parents and friends. Their earlier years were spent having their self-esteem shored up for coming in second. Their grades were artificially increased, to help everyone along. The motivation for doing these things was a kind one. But the real world is a harsher place.

That world is also, now, filled with people who do not know where they are going. As the family unit continues to decline and change, no one seems to have a road map anymore. As gender roles change (and gender as a societal construct goes through its own upheaval), personal compasses stop showing the way. They can’t, because no one knows the way anymore.

Money, too, adds to the problems with college mental health. Our society is more financially stratified than it was a few decades ago. Middle class jobs have disappeared or changed, and they often do not provide enough, anyway. Many collegians know people who work two or more jobs just to run in place. Or they may be the one with the multiple (and perhaps dead-end) jobs. As they hurtle headlong into adulthood and its myriad choices and responsibilities, they feel unready.

Coupled with this is the continued appalling expense of medical care and, still, how hard it can be to get. Or a troubled student is medicated as the first solution, and often the only solution. No wonder many turn to self-medication with food, alcohol, or drugs. And they also do so because admitting you have a mental health issue, and getting treatment for it, is still looked down upon in many parts of our society. For parents who would think nothing of sending their child to an orthopedist for a broken leg, the idea of sending their child to a psychiatrist for a broken psyche is often out of the question.

How dare anyone say things aren’t perfect? How dare anyone admit to the sadness and uncertainty under the veneer?

The issues

So, what are these mental health issues?

Depression

The feeling of depression is more than just feeling low (which happens to everyone). It is a much stronger and more powerful form of misery. Symptoms include altered sleeping habits (too much or too little), emotional manifestations (not just sadness, but also feelings of being overwhelmed and a feeling of hopelessness), and a mindset marked by seeing the glass half-empty and difficulties with concentration. In 2013, over one-third of college students surveyed reported they had some level of depression.

For college students under pressure to get good grades all the time, depression can make scholastic success even harder, and amp up the next issue.

Anxiety

We all have some forms of anxiousness. Tests, understandably, are stressful for all or almost all students. But for those with anxiety disorders, panic or self-consciousness can rule the day. The National Institutes of Mental Health reports that around 12 percent of college students suffer from an anxiety disorder. This makes it the most prevalent issue. And social anxiety can create the kind of self-consciousness that keeps students from making new friends.

Suicide

Amp depression up to infinity and you’ve got the makings of a suicidal collegian. Hopelessness, guilt, and despair become overwhelming. Students experiencing suicidal ideation may say they feel like they are a burden to others, or they are trapped. To the suicidal student, their sole recourse, so far as they are aware, is to take their own life. In 2011, suicide was the tenth-leading cause of death.

Eating disorders

A student with an eating disorder has an unhealthy relationship with food. Of all of the mental disorders, eating disorders are most likely to be fatal. An eating disorder kills someone every 62 minutes.

An eating disorder could be bulimia (binging and purging), binge eating (the binge without the purge), or anorexia nervosa (an unhealthy fixation on being thin at all costs). All of these disorders have a degree of body dimorphism to them, where a person becomes obsessive about food, fitness, and weight.

Addiction and substance abuse

For students away from home for the first time in their lives, college can be a suddenly very adult playground. Drugs and alcohol are far more available, and there are societal pressures to indulge.

However, for addiction, it’s more than that. Addiction is repeated abuse of these substances, coupled with a dependency. Addiction comes with its own set of dangers, including overdosing and the consequences of driving while under the influence. With impaired judgment, students can and will engage in riskier behaviors involving everything from drug abuse to sex. About one-quarter of students who regularly drink say it is affecting their studies.

Getting help

thankfully, colleges today are more likely to have mental health resources than ever before. Plus there are far more activities and programs, designed to help draw out students and give them a place where they fit in.

Remember: No one has to be alone.