Stress and College Mental Health

Stress and College Mental Health

22 Dec

Stress and mental illnesses can hang like a heavy noose tied around your neck, tightening, strangling, and weighing you down as you anxiously await that final release. Lately, more college students have been “hanging”together.

“This is the third year in a row that CAPS has set a record high,” Dr. Peter LeViness, a professor and clinical psychologist at U of R’s Counseling and Psychological Services center said. “But I don’t think that U of R is unique in that way. All schools are seeing a higher demand, especially at the highly selective universities. Harvard and MIT are seeing about 20 percent of their student body, while U of R is just under at about 15 percent of the student body.”

“Students usually come to CAPS when whatever issue they are dealing with begins to impact their functioning, social relationships, concentration, or ability to finish their work,” Dr. LeViness continued. “They are stressed out, have a lost sense of time and in constant state of emergency multitasking.”

The broad category of mental illness refers to any medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, daily functioning, and ability to relate to others, usually resulting in a diminished capacity to cope with the demands in everyday life, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health.

Within this broad category, the most common mental health issues reported at CAPS include mood disorders like depression, stress and anxiety disorders, general relationship and developmental concerns, substance abuse, and eating disorders, and learning disabilities like Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADD or ADHD).

Stress and anxiety have become almost a normal part of college experience, with 84.6 percent of students reported feeling overwhelmed by workload and 47.1 percent feeling reported overpowering anxiety on the American College Health Association’s 2010 National Health Assessment, which often aggravates other underlying mental health issues.

“All of my friends have experienced stress to the point the feel debilitated, most people pull all nighters regularly and are really stressed out all of the time,” Melanie Watkins, a UR senior psychology major said. “I think that the amount of work, the expectations, economy and the particular cut-throat, competitive, do anything to get on top atmosphere at Richmond make students here more stressed and anxious.”

U of R students had reported spending between 19 and 23 hours per week on out of class academic work, with 63 percent of women and 41.9 percent of men feeling overwhelmed by academics once per week or more, according to a 2006 UR Mental Health Needs Survey. And these numbers have probably risen significantly since this survey with the general trend at CAPS, Dr. Leviness pointed out as he explained the Mental Health statistics packet (hyper link to other UR mental Health statistics).

“There is a huge disconnect between what students report about their workload and what teachers perceive it to be—almost all of my students complain about the intensity, while professors think its less rigorous,” Dr. LeViness said. “I have been trying to get the administration to host an open discussion forum on this workload debate. I think it would be a standing room only crowd and a really popular event.”

Why is Mental Illness on the Rise?

In addition to the increase of workload, there are environmental reasons contributing to the rise of mental health issues on college campuses, including the higher levels of competition, goals and expectations, academic unpreparedness, and social isolation.

“This is a time when you know what the hell you want to do with your life or have no clue,” Stephanie Matiatos Foster, a student at Virginian Commonwealth University began to explain. “Your financially insecure at an expensive school, balancing a job and school work and whatever clubs you belong to. And now-a-days everyone at every level is more competitive. It makes things… difficult.”

Crystal Thornhill, a U of R senior psychology major who is involved in many mental health activists’ programs like Active Minds, explained that what once were considered ‘low’ expectations are not so low anymore.

“Expectations of what your supposed to do are getting higher and higher because there are people out there who are able to,” Thornhill said. “And, there are all these wonder-drugs, like Adderall, and other not so wonder-drugs, which make it even harder to compete for both the mentally ill and healthy populations. People who don’t have issues are taking other people’s drugs, putting those who really do have a disorder at an even greater disadvantage.”

Along with rising expectations, it may also be the nature of mental health services that is responsible its rising demand.

“It’s more acceptable to turn to counseling as a form of help,” LeViness said. “The population as a whole are more aware of counseling services, treated at an earlier age, and know the when they need to get help, their signs and symptoms—which is a good thing. People with chronic mental health conditions are identified earlier so they are now able to go to college. About one-fourth of the students seen at CAPS already had some counseling before college.

The high demand in college may also be the fact that most of the mental health services are free. If we had free mental health services for the public, the demand would be huge.”

Signs and Symptoms

So, how do you know when you’re under extreme stress or mental distress?

“I normally get a very bad headache, I’m thinking eratically, I cannot focus or concentrate at all so I am just sitting there not knowing what to do,” Stephanie Matiatos Foster, a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University, said.

“I stop smiling and my back always hurts,” said Chelsea Prue, a Richmond alumni of class 2010 who is now enrolled in the Teach for America program hosted at U of R.

“One time when I was really stressed last year, my friend Fiona came over last year, her mouth just dropped and she screamed ‘Oh my god, Melanie! What is wrong with you?! You look like you have to be in rehab!’” Watkins said, laughing at her vivid reenactment. “You just physically look so much different, especially in pictures. You don’t look healthy, you look sleep deprived because you’re always having to choose between work and sleep.”

Sleep deprivation is a big side effect and symptom I look for in distressed students, LeViness said.

“Half of the students are sleeping less than 7 hours a night and have accumulated so much dept that it further impairs their functioning. They don’t realize how much better they could feel if they slept.”

Another big symptom is procrastination, LeViness continued. They have so many responsibilities to do, and put so much off to the last minute that they have to pull “all nighters” to get it all done one time.

Other students procrastinate because they feel so overwhelmed and use other distractions as a coping mechanism for their anxiety.

Students experiencing too much stress may also exhibit:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased worrying
  • Trouble completing assignments on time
  • Not going to class
  • Short temper or increased agitation
  • Tension
  • Headaches
  • Tight muscles
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Unable to describe emotions
  • Unable to make decisions

In addition to procrastination and sleep problems, the Office of Student Life Studies published a list of signs of mental distress teachers should be aware of:

  • Decrease in the quality of work
  • Too frequent office visits and strong dependency on the teacher
  • Listlessness, sleeping in class
  • Marked changed in personal hygiene
  • Impaired speech or disjointed thoughts
  • Threats regarding self or others
  • Changes in behavior
  • Flat affect, failure to show emotions
  • Crying, or incongruous crying (smiling while crying)

Fighting Stigmas

Even though people experience more mental health concerns, are more aware of the symptoms, and know where to turn to for help, the stigmas surrounding the issue are still prevalent. Thornhill works with many students who share similar symptoms through her involvement in a mental health awareness organization called Active Minds, which works towards breaking the stigmas about mental illnesses on campus.

“We host a coffee hour once a month for students to come and talk about their experiences with mental illness and support each other,” Thornhill said. “Mostly we hear people talk about depression and anxiety. They cannot get everything together and get overwhelmed with the idea of doing badly in school, and in turn it makes them more stressed. They get worse and worse, don’t want to get out of bed, or they want to get out of bed but feel incapable, hopeless, defeated. They stop working out. Depressed people don’t want to get out of bed, with makes it even harder to get to CAPS to talk to people.”

Statistics from a recent U of R Healthy Minds Survey support Thornhill’s observation of the gap between the need for and use of mental health services. Thirty percent of college men and 50 percent of college women have thought they needed mental health help in the past 12 months, but only 18 percent of men and 21 percent of women have received any mental health counseling. This means that only half of the people who need support are seeking it.

“Mental illness issues are a difficult topic, because you do not want to be seen as crazy, overwhelmed, or like you can’t handle it when everyone else can. In some respect its easier for students to fend for themselves until it all falls apart and they have no choice but to go to CAPS,” Thornhill said. “A lot of the mentally ill people I deal with are always telling me things like, a teacher ‘just doesn’t understand that I am seriously mentally ill’ and ‘have to go to the dean to deal with my grades.’ Others told me the teacher was like ‘you’re just lazy,’ which has happened to me before. But its not that im lazy, it just you cant do it all.

And some teachers are simply not receptive. They don’t understand and say they fall victim to the same thing. They think ‘you’re supposed to pick yourself up and keep going’ but if we all think that way, it makes people not want to ask for help or feel bad about themselves when they do,” Thornhill continued. “And it penalizes students when they ask for help because it’s in your grade if your teacher doesn’t believe you’re having a problem, and that shouldn’t be the case.”

Watkins had been diagnosed with ADD her freshmen year of college

“I don’t talk to teachers about my ADD because I don’t like seeing it as an excuse,” Watkins agreed. “There’s a big stigma around being open about those things. I feel like its something you have to deal with on your own, you cannot rely on your teachers, or even if you feel close to them, they wouldn’t understand and would think less of my abilities because I have ADD.

In retrospect, there’s a really bad paradox going on here,” Watkins continued. “You wouldn’t want mental illness to be something people can just ‘say’ but when you are really depressed or have a lot of anxiety about school, your work suffers.”

Dr. Leviness had a different perspective on teachers’ support. Although they are not officially trained, they are concerned about students and if they see a student is having a hard time or physically upset, they try to do the right thing and will contact CAPS, LeViness said. They may not fully understand the issue but they do their best.

Another stigma that gets repeated a lot is that many people who haven’t had experiences with mental health have a hard time understanding why people can’t recover from their problems.

“There is a lack of understanding about the complexity of mental illness and why quick fixes don’t work,” Thornhill said. “People think if you have an eating disorder, just eat. If your really sad, just pull yourself together. If its an extreme end and a person is cutting or hurting themselves, why don’t you just stop cutting? But it is never that simple, or people wouldn’t be having these problems at all.”

Is Balance in College Possible?

Many college students have a hard time achieving balance in college, Watkins explained to me. They either are over-engaged and hyper-focused in schoolwork, or partying with friends.

They have a hard time achieving wholeness, a feeling of complete mental, physical, and social wellbeing. They live in a constant state of partialness, filling their plate with one aspect of wholeness without taking the time to cook up side activities to unify their meal. Unity is the gravy atop turkey, stuffing, and potatoes- it combines the ingredients and enhances the meal as a whole. Without the gravy, the meal is incomplete and disconnected.

“I cannot imagine how people can do well in school and still have a life,” Watkins said.  “I just cannot imagine how people can do it and still get everything out of college they were hoping to. Whenever I have an active social life, my academics suffer. And when I start to stay in at weekends and focus on school work, my social life becomes non-existent.”

“There are three important things the college: social life, academics, and sleep. I am convinced that if your lucky you get two of those things, but you never have all of them completely,” Prue agreed in theory.

An unbalanced is a student who is so busy they don’t have time to sleep, they eat meals on the run, their mind never shuts off, they feel like they have to be productive 24/7, LeViness explained. A balanced student is a student who builds downtime into their schedule and sees it as essential. They view sleep, exercise, and relaxation not jut as frills but as essential things that keep us going health and well.

“Students should be aware of their mental health as they are about their physical health and see them as equally important. People wouldn’t try to jog around campus with a sprained ankle but they are doing the equivalent,” LeViness said. “People would say ‘oh I can’t run I have a sprained ankle,’ but they do not use the same logic when they are stressed out or anxious.”

“I believe it is possible to achieve balance, and it’s a challenge in U.S. culture as a whole, which is not prone to thinking that way,” LeViness said. “We concentrate more on maximizing achievement, distinguishing ourselves among peers, and don’t reward people for balanced lives but for getting more work done than everyone else.”


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