Examining mental health in college students

Depression is a mood disorder that affects millions of people around the world, causing a persistent sad mood. If untreated, it can affect the way a person feels, thinks and functions. Photo courtesy of publicdomainpictures.net.

Although the college years are commonly referred to as the greatest years of your life, not all students are always as happy as they seem. With busy, stressful schedules, some may find that their mental health is suffering, including Kyle Jackson, a senior psychology and music major at Seton Hill University (SHU).

“I have been dealing with both severe anxiety and depression pretty much since I started college, and it has only been through a combination of medication, counseling and the love and support of family and friends that I’m still alive,” Jackson said.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes depression as a mood disorder with symptoms affecting how a person can “feel, think and handle daily activities.” Anxiety disorders can also interfere with daily activities because they involve a persistent feeling of worry or fear.

“Depression and anxiety are the two most prevalent, presenting disorders for individuals of this age,” said Terri Bassi-Cook, director of counseling, disability and health services at SHU. “We do see a lot of students struggling with that because both of those disorders have their onset during the years that a student is in college.”

Not everyone with depression will experience all symptoms, but common symptoms include a persistent sad mood, feelings of hopelessness and/or helplessness, loss of pleasure in hobbies and activities, fatigue, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, appetite and/or weight changes and suicidal thoughts.

The NIMH states that people may develop generalized anxiety disorder, with symptoms like difficulty controlling fear and restlessness, or social anxiety disorder, which is a specific fear of social situations.

“People that become anxious also often become avoidant,” Bassi-Cook said. “Some people will start to have panic attacks (panic disorder), where the body starts to actually express the anxiety that they’re feeling, and that’s through heart palpitations, sweaty and palmy hands, mental confusion and racing thoughts.”

Although depression can be caused by biological factors like genetics, other factors can cause depression, such as abuse, personal conflicts, death of a loved one, major life events and substance abuse. The Mayo Clinic suggests that along with stress and feeling overwhelmed, potential causes of depression in college students can be “feeling homesick, adapting to new schedules and workloads, adjusting to life with roommates, figuring out how to belong, money and intimate relationships.”

If mental health issues go untreated, not only will students feel unhappy, but they may also see their academic performance, athletic performance, physical health and relationships suffer. Depression can make it difficult for students to stay motivated for tests, assignments and attending classes.

“I think that if it goes unacknowledged or untreated, it can have a variety of adverse effects, ranging from not showing up to class to possible death,” Jackson said. “In my own experiences, I frequently missed class and blew off assignments simply because I didn’t know how to find fulfillment in my studies when every thought I had was about how I would never amount to anything and I would be better off dead.”

The chart above is titled “What Goes Through a Typical College Student’s Mind Over a 12-Month Period.” It shows feelings that college students experience over the course of a year, according to The American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment from its spring 2014 reference group executive summary. Approximately 86 percent of students felt overwhelmed, 82 percent felt exhausted and 62 percent felt sad. Photo courtesy of affordablecollegesonline.org.

If you are struggling with any mental health issue, SHU’s Counseling Center provides free services to students to discuss treatment options. Located on the fifth floor of the Administration building, it is staffed Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. and the staff is on call at all times.

“We try to support students on a full range of problems that they might have,” Bassi-Cook said. “That could be anything from homesickness up to students that are struggling with eating disorders, schizoaffective disorders, suicidal ideations, depressions, anxieties or trauma of some sort.”

The Counseling Center staff helps students design a confidential program to suit their needs, which typically includes individual counseling sessions or making off-campus referrals. Because depression can lead to suicidal thoughts, you can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you or someone you know is contemplating suicide.

“The message I think we want to get out to people is that depression and anxieties are treatable, that they’re not something that a person just has to endure or just wait and see if it goes away,” Bassi-Cook said.

Depression is commonly treated with talk therapy, the main service the Counseling Center provides, and a doctor may also prescribe medication if needed. Bassi-Cook said self-help materials from reliable sources are another resource, including brochures in the Counseling Center. Other options to alleviate depression include spending time with others, sharing your feelings with a trusted friend or relative, exercising, sticking to your treatment plan and continuing to educate yourself about mental health.

Posing for a picture at her desk is Terri Bassi-Cook, director of counseling, disability and health services at Seton Hill University. Bassi-Cook’s office is located on the fifth floor of the Administration building. Photo by P.Parise/Setonian.

“The number one thing that will improve how an individual is feeling physically and emotionally is good sleep, good nutrition and exercise,” Bassi-Cook said. “I know that everybody is busy, and we try to get creative about how you can still do all those things and get everything else done that you want to get done in a day.”

Although the perception of mental health has changed over the years, Bassi-Cook said general “attitudes” still need improvement, since people struggling with these issues are often concerned about what others will think.

“In America, both through my own experiences and reading about other people’s situations, mental health is highly stigmatized because people assume that because our mental health, rather than our physical health, is compromised, we can simply think away our problems and ‘be normal,’” Jackson said. “This demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how mental health functions, because our brains are like any other organ or physical part of our body. It requires time and effort to heal effectively, and to assume otherwise only hurts those with mental health issues.”

“The sooner we can stop stigmatizing mental health issues, the sooner we can come together and have an effective dialogue about how these issues can be addressed,” he added.

Jackson said that anyone who is struggling with a mental health issue has nothing to be embarrassed about. From his experiences, he recommends talking to your parents, contacting a mental health professional and following the professional’s advice to treat your mental health.

“I regret the time and effort that I wasted as a result of being at the mercy of my mental health issues, but I’ve also learned a lot about myself by going through these experiences, and I feel more prepared to face life after college because I’ve spent the time and effort to try and better understand myself and my issues,” Jackson said. “Mental health issues can affect a person’s life in a wide variety of ways and need to be taken care of, regulated and checked in with on a regular basis in order to ensure that they don’t become the dominant force in your life.”

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