College stressors triggering depression
March 1, 2010 —
As he lay on his couch with a knife to his wrist, Michael Rocha knew he had a problem.
“I really felt I couldn’t talk to anyone about what I was feeling,” Rocha said. “I thought if my friends found out, they’d make fun of me or leave me.”
Rocha was just 13 when he began to show signs of anxiety and depression. But a feeling of isolation from his family and peers made things worse, until he began to contemplate suicide.
“The funny thing was I was getting more popular in school as I was getting more depressed,” the history junior said.
Rocha’s problem is a surprisingly common one. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that more than one in four suffer from a mental illness, such as the depression and anxiety that plagued Rocha, in any given year.
This adds up to 57 million Americans. Yet less than half of those seek treatment.
In the pressure-cooker of a college campus, the situation is often more severe. The major triggers of mental illness — alcohol and drug use, sleep problems and schedule disruptions, relationship issues, general stress — are nearly impossible to avoid.
A major survey of Saginaw Valley students published in 2009, the National College Health Assessment, laid bare a reality often hidden on campus: Beneath the surface, many students are quietly suffering.
In a 12-month period, 60 percent of SVSU students reported feeling “very sad,” 49 percent had felt “hopeless,” 27 percent had been “so depressed it was difficult to function,” and 5.4 percent had seriously considered suicide.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death of college students. The No. 1 precursor to suicide is untreated depression.
SVSU’s Student Counseling Center has seen a 56 percent increase in referrals for depression during the past few years, according to director Robert Cooper.
Cooper attributed the rise to three factors.
• Thanks to modern treatments, students with pre-existing conditions who may not have been able to attend college in the past now can. Still, the stress of college often provokes symptoms to resurface.
• A vigorous and ongoing student outreach campaign by SVSU’s Peer Health Educators and by Counseling Services has helped bring more students into the center.
• The spread of information about mental illnesses on the Internet has begun to erode the social stigma these conditions often carry.
Cooper is quick to point out that the stigma is still a problem.
Stigmatization compounds a mental illness by blaming the victims for their conditions, increasing feelings of guilt and self-reproach.
Afflicted persons often will hide their problems from others, or deny them completely. This can needlessly prolong the problem.
Rocha can attest to that. After years of suffering with anxiety and depression, Rocha finally discovered teachers and mentors that he could open up to in high school.
By graduation, he had emerged from his illness prepared for collegiate success.
“I just needed someone to talk to,” Rocha said. “I still get depressed once in a while, like everyone does, but I can deal with it fine now.”
Cooper agreed that talking out one’s problems, like Rocha did, can be a great help to college students.
“Some students just need to talk it out for even 15 minutes to get back going,” Cooper said.
Student Counseling Center’s mission is a broad one that takes a holistic approach to mental health, including prevention and education programs.
Jennifer Ordway, assistant director, pointed out the four key issues the center seeks to educate students about: sleep issues, sexual health, sexual assault, and alcohol and drug use.
Difficulties in any of these four issues can trigger mental illnesses, said Dr. Mohammad Jafferany, a specialist in pediatric and adolescent psychiatry at Tuscola Behavioral Health Systems in Caro.
Jafferany noted that, though mental illness can emerge at any time in life, most people first encounter it between ages 18 and 24 — years most commonly spent in college.
Family history and environmental conditions are the biggest risk factors. Jafferany said students must be aware that the worst environmental triggers are all-too-common in the cauldron of college life: stress, use of mood-altering drugs (including alcohol) and difficulties with friends and lovers.
The illnesses young adults are most prone to are depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, Jafferany said, though young adulthood also sees the onset of schizophrenia as well.
To this list, Ordway added post-traumatic stress disorder, body-image and eating issues, and more.
“Homesickness, time and stress management, roommate issues, relationship issues ... you name it, we see it,” Ordway said.
Ordway and Cooper urged any student who feels he or she could take advantage of Counseling Service’s free short-term counseling and assessments to do so.
The services are completely confidential and never appear in a student’s college records.
Cooper said that’s all part of the center’s mission to help students lead overall healthy lives, never forgetting that mental health is an essential part of total wellness.
“Mental health issues are starting to be viewed as just another part of the life process,” Cooper said. “Everyone goes through them.”