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    Mental Illness, Suicide Incidents Rise in College Campuses

    Campus counselors across the United States are reporting increasing numbers of students coming in with emotions that they do not have coping skills to deal with.

    While stress is a common problem historically, the numbers of students has grown to over 10-50% of the student populations on campus, nationwide. This increase seems to keep going on, while the serious nature of the emotional dysregulation for these students increases as well.

    College Mental Illness and Suicide: Probable Causes

    Several reasons are postulated for this steady rise in mental health treatment.

    • The first is seen at those colleges with highest standards for both admission and continued success. These students arrive at college, where their admission had required years of intense activity to remain a candidate. Not only do they have to show the highest and best academic skills, but their social, cultural, service to their community, along with physical prowess had to place them head and shoulders above the rest of the applicants. Competition had created high levels of intense stress for years before they even got accepted into college.

    During initial attendance, they are quick to see that they are in groups of students who are equally, if not more so, focused on high levels of achievement in every area of academic life. This increased pressure to excel pushes more students into counseling and states of depression and anxiety daily.

    • Social media interaction may cause a tendency for students to dramatize their anxiety and escalate reports of intense emotional trouble, according to one authority.
    • Students in higher socio-economic circumstances have seldom had to deal with the stressors of day-to-day decision making, and the freedom to choose activities and social life on their own increases stress. Most of this population have come from overly parented lifestyles, where their needs are seldom of concern regarding meal preparation, laundry, cleaning of their living environment, etc. Their daily lives are cushioned from work or personal chores, making them more susceptible to being overwhelmed when these are added to class attendance, homework, sports activities and social interaction.
    • Dating, for college-age young adults, can be a key factor in emotional overload. The ups and downs of student relationships cause many young men and women to have feelings of both anxiety and depression.
    • The popularity of alcohol and drugs in student life is an enormous part of every campus. One company markets college logo molds made specifically for jello shots. Most counselors are seeing a trend away from the pleasant “buzz” sought by students in past decades and a strong desire for obliteration or unconsciousness in order to eliminate the escalating stress felt by students.

    The Rise of Campus Suicide

    Alarming data is being compiled across the nation to show how serious this issue is becoming. Along with the 2014 suicide of Madison Holleran, a student at University of Pennsylvania and track star, the awareness of high risks is seen in other patterns.

    • Suicide rates on college campuses have increased over 200% in the past 50 years.
    • Young adults, aged 15 to 24, have had triple the suicide rate that existed in 1950.
    • 1.5 out of every 100 students has attempted suicide.

    The ways that students cope with stress are inappropriate and have become problematic. Along with drinking and drugs, increased problems of rape, self-harm (such as cutting, burning and self-mutilation), eating disorders, and acting out are being seen in the dorms and the classrooms.

    While many of these students report no intention of suicide when performing these acts, there appears to be an increase in their need for attention to deal with their problems.

    The Social Factors

    Few of the students seeking counseling felt rapport or closeness with peers. In today’s competitive environment, they view other students as competition for the good grades or spot on the varsity team. Very few social supports in groups of peers are seen to exist. While some may foster good will by reporting troubling behavior of another student, it is often seen as “eliminating a competitor”, even by the student whose behavior is reported.

    Many students are coming to college with mental health problems that were recognized prior to their admission. Approximately 10 percent of students seeking counseling at some campuses had been previously hospitalized for mental health issues.

    A counseling services director at Penn State reported that one in three of their students seeking counseling help had a prior diagnosis of a mental disorder. While a large study including over 100,000 students found that 19 percent of all students, not just those seeking help, were taking psychotropic medications (antidepressants, anxiolytics, or stimulants).

    Letting Them Know: Support is Available

    Awareness of these issues is important. Teaching other students, faculty and staff to understand and recognize the problems is key. With awareness and some simple intervention, many students can be made to feel safe in the college environment.

    Along with education, a trend toward recognizing student resilience is important. Teaching coping skills that are more appropriate than those they may have at-hand is a good way to begin the swing toward better balance. Stress management courses and other student skills may provide them with options that are healthier for venting and decreasing seeming demands on their fragile resources.

    Support groups, counseling and other methods for providing support to students who feel emotionally overwhelmed will also reverse this trend.

    As seen in large corporate environments, introducing meditation, massage, yoga, tai chi and other relaxation techniques as a regular part of campus life is vital in reduction of this problem.

    Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work and a CATC IV in addictions counseling. She teaches meditation and mindfulness, specializing in addiction and trauma. She also leads workshops and seminars on treatment of addictive disorders and stress reduction.


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