Stress from the economic downturn, trouble coping with the transition to college, and general depression and anxiety appear to be hitting college students at rates never seen before on campuses across the country.
College counseling centers also are seeing many more students with complex mental-health diseases, such as clinical depression and bipolar disorder, center directors say.
“I think there’s absolutely no question that we’re getting more and more of the severe kinds of mental-health issues and just an increase in demand for services,” said Jane Morgan Bost, associate director of the University of Texas at Austin Counseling and Mental Health Center.
In 1988, 58 percent of counseling directors nationwide reported seeing students with significant psychological problems, according to a survey conducted by Robert Gallagher of the University of Pittsburgh, a longtime counseling center director.
Over the past 10 years, more than 90 percent of directors reported seeing such students, with 93.4 percent this year, Gallagher wrote in a recent report. Issues include clinical depression, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts and students cutting themselves, he wrote in an e-mail.
“Most counseling center professionals that I know feel somewhat overwhelmed with the problem,” he wrote.
In the Lone Star State, the number of students seeking counseling at the University of North Texas in Denton jumped 27 percent to 1,644 last school year, compared with 1,290 students in 2004-05, far outpacing enrollment growth. Overall enrollment at UNT increased about 11.3 percent over the same period.
At the University of Texas at Dallas, the number of students seeking counseling increased 32 percent over five years to 565 students in the 2008-09 academic year. Overall enrollment increased 8.9 percent during those years.
UT-Austin reports that about 5,000 students sought counseling last year. Though previous comparative figures were unavailable, Bost said she doesn’t need them to know that a trend is under way. Every mental-health program offered through the center is full, she said.
Josh L. arrived at the University of Texas at Austin in fall 2008 after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Chicago.
The anxiety he felt from living in a new place set off a bout of depression that he couldn’t shake, said Josh, who did not want his full last name published to protect his privacy. He recalls thinking as he drove along an interstate that if he just veered off the highway, he would probably die.
Despite graduating from one of the country’s most prestigious universities, Josh would tell people that he was worthless.
The 23-year-old said that he never seriously thought about suicide but that he lost any sense of enjoyment. A friend recommended that he go to counseling, and he turned to the campus center. That led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder type 2 with symptoms that included insomnia, irritability and lack of focus.
The transition to college either as an undergraduate or graduate student can trigger enormous stress, counselors say. The competition to get into a top-rated university is harder than ever, they say. And the pressure to succeed can be intense, starting from preschool. Parents in New York City now pay over $34,000 a year to send their children to elite nursery schools.
“Students have been in a more competitive academic environment from a much earlier age. And that has transitioned into college, where students are coming through feeling overwhelmed from the get-go,” said Ben Locke, executive director of the Center for the Study of Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University.
At UT-Austin, depression and anxiety are the most common conditions that counselors see, Bost said. The hard financial times mean added stress because there’s less money for loans and scholarships and for families to cover tuition.
“There’s no question that that’s a factor,” Bost said.
Parents, meanwhile, are more involved in their children’s lives for a longer time, and that is not always a good trend, several counselors said.
“A lot of students really don’t have good coping skills when they become stressed,” said Judy McConnell, UNT’s director of counseling and testing services. “Their parents have tended to rescue them.”
Sometimes students face issues that are beyond their control. Emma Miller, a senior at UT-Austin, was 15 when her father shot himself inside the family’s Dallas home.
“It was hard. My mom found my dad,” Miller said. “She dropped us off at school and came home and found him.”
Miller said she felt she needed to be strong to help her mother and a then-11-year-old sister, both shattered by the event.
Miller said she tried counseling, but that didn’t work out well. She now leads Active Minds at UT-Austin, a club that provides information about mental health and about services on campus. Though Active Minds is not a therapy group, it’s still an organization where Miller said she feels free to express her feelings. Mostly, getting the word out about mental health gives Miller more meaning in her life, she said.
“You have to find what is good other than the fact that he’s not suffering anymore,” said Miller, 22. “Everything happens for a reason, and you just have to find good in it. You have to find a way to move on and be stronger and build yourself back up. Because that’s all you can do.”
The range of services at some colleges is vast. At UT-Austin, the mental-health center offers individual counseling, a telephone line staffed by professionals 24 hours a day, a relaxation room with stuffed chairs and soft music, and about 60 groups a year that focus on such areas as handling romantic relationships, coping with anxiety, having the courage to be imperfect, and dealing with grief and loss.
The inevitable question is whether universities should be engaging in the mental-health business rather than keeping their focus and their dollars on academics. UT-Austin will spend an estimated $3.3 million on mental-health services this year, less than 1 percent of its total $2.1 billion budget but up from $2.2 million in the 1998-99 school year.
McConnell responds that counseling centers keep students in school by helping them cope with or solve problems that would otherwise prompt them to drop out. Bost added that costs are covered by student fees, so counseling is free, accessible and geared toward young adults.
The suicide rate for college students is about 7.5 per 100,000 people. And the 50,000-student UT-Austin is at that rate, Bost said. But it could be a lot higher if some students were not sent to hospitals for mental-health care, she said.
At UNT, crisis cases have more than doubled, from 40 during the 2004-05 school year to 92 last year, McConnell said. UT-Dallas’ center saw 68 cases from Sept. 1 through Nov. 12, compared with 51 during the same period last year, officials report.
A crisis can mean anything from a suicide threat to an emotional outburst in class, said James Cannici, UT-Dallas’ director of student counseling. Professors are quicker to act given the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, he said.
“The threshold for referral, I’d say, is much lower,” Cannici said.
College counseling centers may be saving lives.
“Young people who do not go to college are twice as likely to commit suicide as those who do attend a post-high-school institution,” Gallagher said, “and of those students who do commit suicide in college, the vast majority of them are students who did not seek out the free help available to them at college counseling centers.”
A major warning sign is a drop in grades, especially a drastic drop, said Scott Methvin director of Texas Wesleyan University’s Glick House Community Counseling Center in Fort Worth. Other signals include a student isolating himself, coming to class late or skipping class, or falling asleep in class.
“Basically, what you’re looking for is anything out of the normal that perhaps you didn’t see before,” Methvin said.
Counselors say they’re encouraged that students are more comfortable with getting mental-health help. Technology has given them far more access to information than past generations.
“There’s still stigma,” Bost said. “But I think that more people are seeing it as a real, viable part of their lives.”
Josh, for example, said he would talk about counseling with anyone who asked.
“I don’t feel like if … they had misconceptions or bias that that would be the kind of thing that would really upset me,” Josh said.