The Stress of Going to College

Many people may view the years spent at college as among the best years of their life, but for others it is a time of tremendous stress and anxiety.

But before people start calling such students snowflakes and other derogatory terms, consider the fact that when a student harms himself or others because of a mental health issue, one of the first reactions of people is “if only he had reached out and gotten some help.”

So we should be encouraging students who are feeling anxious or stressed or depressed to seek help, and not belittle such feelings.

Fortunately, it appears that many college students are taking advantage of such counseling services, to the point that college counseling centers are overwhelmed with the numbers of students they now see.

According to a recent story in Time magazine, between 2009 and 2015, the number of students visiting counseling centers increased by about 30% on average, while enrollment grew by less than 6%. In spring 2017, nearly 40% of college students said they had felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult for them to function, and 61% of students said they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the same time period.

As colleges try to meet this growing demand, some students are slipping through the cracks due to long waits for treatment and a lasting stigma associated with mental health issues.

To prevent students from burning out and dropping out, colleges across the country — where health centers might once have left meaningful care to outside providers — are experimenting with new measures. Consider the following:

  • For the first time last fall, UCLA offered all incoming students a free online screening for depression. More than 2,700 students have opted in, and counselors have followed up with more than 250 who were identified as being at risk for severe depression, exhibiting manic behavior or having suicidal thoughts.
  • Virginia Tech University has opened several satellite counseling clinics to reach students where they already spend time, stationing one above a local Starbucks and embedding others in the athletic department and graduate student center.
  • Ohio State University added a dozen mental health clinicians during the 2016-17 academic year and has also launched a counseling mobile app that allows students to make an appointment, access breathing exercises, listen to a playlist designed to cheer them up, and contact the clinic in case of an emergency.
  • Pennsylvania State University allocated roughly $700,000 in additional funding for counseling and psychological services in 2017, citing a “dramatic increase” in the demand for care over the past 10 years.
  • The counseling center at launched a triage model last year in an effort to eliminate long wait times caused by rising demand, assigning a clinician to provide same-day care to students presenting signs of distress and coordinate appropriate follow-up treatment based on the student’s needs.
  • The University of Iowa has embedded two counselors in dorms since 2016 and is considering adding more after freshmen said it was a helpful service they would not have sought out on their own. Schreier also added six questions about mental health to a freshman survey that the university sends out several weeks into the fall semester. The counseling center follows up with students who might need help based on their responses.

A 2016 report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that, on average, universities have increased resources devoted to rapid-access services — including walk-in appointments and crisis treatment for students demonstrating signs of distress — since 2010 in response to rising demand from students. But long-term treatment services, including recurring appointments and specialized counseling, decreased on average during that time period, which is problematic.

As colleges scramble to meet this demand, off-campus clinics are developing innovative, if expensive, treatment programs that offer a personalized support system and teach students to prioritize mental wellbeing in high-pressure academic settings. Here are links to some of these innovative programs:

Some students delay seeing a counselor because they question whether their situation is serious enough to warrant it.

But one student who has had to deal with feelings of stress and anxiety and has weekly visits with a counselor at her college has become a resource for other students because she openly discusses her own mental health, encouraging others not to be ashamed to get help.

“I’m kind of the go-to now for it, to be honest,” she says. “They’ll ask me, ‘Do you think I should go see counseling?’” Her answer is always yes.

And I couldn’t agree more. And I think as teachers, we can do more to not only encourage our students to take advantage of such resources, but to be careful that we are not part of the problem by creating unnecessary stress and anxiety in the first place.

While I think some stress is good, we have to realize that our class is not the only thing going on in our students’ lives. They also have to deal with other courses, holding down a part-time job, looking for full-time jobs, being part of campus organizations, such as sports, performing arts, or student business societies, relationship issues, and many other potential sources of stress.

I want my student’s time at college to be among the best years of their life, so when a student seems like he is feeling stressed, perhaps the best way to respond is with kindness and a suggestion to visit the counseling center.


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