Stressed-Out Undergrads And The College Mental Health Crisis

In case you missed it this morning taking your possibly stressed-out kids to school, check out On Point’s excellent segment about the mental health crisis among college students.

The bottom line: undergrads are struggling, many of them suffering from mild, moderate and severe mental illness. And colleges are scrambling to figure out ways to cope, from setting up automated counseling kiosks to launching campaigns promoting the message that it’s all right to ask for help.

A special report, “An Epidemic of Anguish,” published in The Chronicle of Education is featured on the show:

“Colleges are trying to meet the demand by hiring more counselors, creating group-therapy sessions to treat more students at once, and arranging for mental-health coordinators who help students manage their own care. A couple of colleges have even installed mental-health kiosks,which look like ATMs and allow students to get a quick screening for depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe reports that MIT, a well-known hotbed of stress, is enhancing its mental health services for students:

Starting this academic year, the Cambridge school will provide more mental health counselors, create a drop-in center for students to talk with professionals, and make it easier for students to seek professional services off campus.

The changes come after campus officials reviewed the results of a survey administered to students in April and May, which found that 24 percent of undergraduate respondents have been diagnosed with one or more mental health disorders by a health professional.

Alli Stancil/Flickr

Alli Stancil/Flickr

The reality that many college students suffer from mental illness isn’t exactly new. Earlier this year, for instance, researchers at UCLA surveyed 150,000 college freshman and found an increase in the number of students who report they were “frequently depressed.”

I asked child psychiatrist Dr. Steve Schlozman, associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, about the UCLA report back in February and whether depression among college-age kids is getting worse, and he said: “We are reaping what we sow.” He added:

The pressure we put on high school kids to get into college and the pressure then that college follows up with is highly correlated with increased rates of emotional distress that can become full-blown depression. Also, the age of onset of depression is the exactly the age of onset of college — there’s a perfect storm of stressors. Finally, there’s a greater willingness to come forward, which is good. So, despite the fact that we’re using the word ‘depression’ a little more glibly, I’d rather have that and then rule out clinical depression through appropriate channels, like college health services, than miss cases that can lead to real suffering and possibly even death.

Now, Schlozman says, it makes sense for colleges to boost their efforts to make mental health services more accessible. In an email, he writes:

It makes sound ethical, medical and common sense for colleges and universities to increase their surveillance for mental health challenges as the school year begins, and to provide easy and unfettered access for ongoing care. Ideally, a comprehensive plan that has multiple and coordinated entry points and multiple and coordinated means by which care is delivered is the best way to provide the essential help that the last two decades have shown us is sorely needed on college campuses.

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The Checkup: Meltdown U. And Mental Health Tips For Parents Of College Kids

For all those freshman just settling into dorm life this fall, college can be exhilarating, mind-blowing, the best years of their lives. But many parents don’t realize that their children are also facing a potential double whammy. Not only must new students navigate an entirely unfamiliar social, emotional and intellectual landscape, but they’re also entering a time in their lives — the ages between 18 and 21 — when many mental illnesses, from anxiety to depression to eating disorders, peak.

This week, The Checkup, our podcast on Slate, explores the mental health of college students. Here’s one sobering statistic: up to 50% of college-age kids have had or will have some kind of psychiatric disorder. That’s why we’re calling this episode “Meltdown U.” (To listen to The Checkup now, click on the arrow above; to download and listen later, press Download; and to get it through iTunes click here.)

The Checkup

Consider some more scary numbers:

–80% of college students who need mental health services won’t seek them

–50% of all college students say they have felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function during the last school year

–Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-age youth – over 1000 deaths per year.

–The rate of student psychiatric hospitalizations has tripled in the past 20 years.

We asked Dr. Eugene Beresin, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, to offer some guidance on what parents should know about helping their college-age kids cope with the high stress of undergraduate life. Here’s his advice: Continue reading

MIT ‘Meltdown’ Blog Resonates With Stressed-Out Students

Lydia K.’s “meltdown” hit hard shortly after she began her junior year at MIT.

“Toward the end of September,” Lydia blogged, “I became noticeably stressed out. I stopped talking to people, I stopped cleaning my room, and I got very lonely. It culminated in an hour-long cry session after a benign meeting with my biology professor about a class presentation.”

An MIT undergrad blogs about the intense stress of college life when “no matter how hard you work…you’re not good enough.”

A 20-year-old self-described “perfectionist” who was born in Moscow and started high school-level classes in 7th grade, Lydia had also stopped sleeping, spent much of her time working alone in a basement and, though feeling ill, was ignoring her symptoms. She’d recently missed a week of classes after recovering from a medical procedure and was struggling to catch up.

One night while working on a project that wasn’t quite coming together, Lydia — a computer science and molecular biology major and a paid blogger for the MIT Admissions Department — decided to take a break and blog about her troubled, under-pressure state of mind. Though the instructions from Admissions were, she said, to keep it “PG and pretend that you’re writing for your grandmother” Lydia decided to go for emotional truth and honesty. Here’s a taste:

“I don’t think many people understand what we mean when we say that MIT is hard. It’s not just the workload.

There’s this feeling that no matter how hard you work, you can always be better, and as long as you can be better, you’re not good enough. You’re a slacker, you’re stupid…There’s stress and there’s shame and there’s insecurity. Sometimes there’s hope. Sometimes there’s happiness. Sometimes there’s overwhelming loneliness.”

Lydia’s raw, revealing portrait of intense undergraduate angst and the enormous pressure to succeed that burdens so many students at MIT and beyond became an instant hit. Shortly after its publication, there were hundreds of comments from alumni, faculty and students from MIT and colleges across the country.  (One example, from Quynh: “This is beautiful. You have put into words what I’ve felt constantly since stepping foot on this campus but unable to express. Thank you.” And from Random Harvard Student: “I go to Harvard, and this article perfectly hits on how I feel sometimes. Thank you so much for writing such a beautiful piece that makes me feel less pathetic about crying after coming back from a lab where I understood absolutely nothing.”)

The piece got more than 4,000 “likes” on Facebook and over 40,000 views, more than most admissions blogs, according to Admissions Dean Stuart Schmill, who added that Lydia’s “meltdown” “is not the type of post you’d usually find on an admissions website.”

MIT’s President Rafael Reif responded with an open letter in the student newspaper, The Tech, citing Lydia’s “powerful account of her feelings of academic strain and anxiety” and calling for a deeper conversation about some of the problems she raised. Continue reading