Increasing numbers of college-aged students in the U.S. have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. According to a survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 27 percent of students have depression and 11 percent have anxiety.
Michelle Satterlee, a psychology professor at John Brown University, said that students ask her some surprising questions.
“Coming to JBU I’ve heard students say things that I didn’t feel like I’d heard for like 15 years,” Satterlee said. Questions like: is mental health a result of demon possession? Do those who struggle with depression and anxiety just need to pray more?
“Is it just a matter of faith? Well, is that what we tell diabetics?” Satterlee asked. Anxiety disorders are the most common of any mental health disorder, with nearly 40 million people in the U.S. experiencing an anxiety disorder in any given year. On campus, between 18 and 25 percent of incoming freshman in the dorms are on psychiatric medication of some type. This can include antidepressants, Ritalin, ADHD medications, particular sleep aids and antipsychotics. With so many people living with mental health disorders, Satterlee thinks it’s important to educate students about the causes of mental health while still respecting their genuine questions and concerns. “We know that for some people there are genetic predispositions to particular imbalances or particular struggles,” Satterlee said mental health disorders can be either neurochemically or neurologically based.
Because of rapid growth in the field of medical technology, students who would have been unable to attend college 10 or 15 years ago because of mental health disorders are now able to attend college and earn a degree.
“Now one of the challenges with the college student population, for example, is that we tend to load factors badly. If you ask the average college student how they feel about their ability to jump from high school and home living to all the life skills involved in college and all the renegotiation, it’s already a pretty heavy load,” Satterlee said. “Then you add on how many college students feel like they get adequate sleep or have regular sleep habits, and as soon as that’s off, then any predisposition comes out.”
Because of this new generation of students, counseling is in high demand on university campuses nationwide, many of whom are struggling to provide resources to all of their students. The JBU Counseling Center has two full-time staff members, three contract therapists and three graduate interns to help meet the need for counseling at JBU.
One counselor at the Counseling Center, Mollie Reddin, said JBU prioritizes the resources allocated to the Counseling Center. The budget cuts affecting every department on campus have spared the Counseling Center in hopes that they can better serve students.
“It’s definitely prioritized by the school and the university is really keeping our resources available,” Reddin said.
Still, the purpose of counseling is not to “fix” a mental health disorder, but rather to help students work through their struggles. “It’s not necessarily trying to stop or get rid of anxiety. That’s not the goal. More helpful perhaps is this idea that I’ve got to learn to relate to these experiences differently,” Satterlee said. “One of the things is just to normalize that there are supposed to be some difficulties right now. That doesn’t automatically equal personal failure, that doesn’t automatically equal that it’s not going to change.”
Margaret Wilkerson is a sophomore at JBU who has lived with severe depression and anxiety since middle school. “It’s an interesting dichotomy on campus I’ve noticed, because everyone talks about [mental health] but no one does anything about it,” Wilkerson said.
Reddin said that students might not engage in the topic of mental health because they don’t know much about it. “If [students] are not familiar with it they can make assumptions about [anxiety and depression],” Reddin said. “Sometimes maybe that is what builds stigma: I’m afraid to ask so I’m not going to.” Reddin encouraged students who have friends that live with mental health disorders to ask questions to better understand what their friends are going through.
“It’s OK to not know what to say,” Reddin said. “Being present with the person and being willing to point them towards someone maybe who does know what to say or who might be a helpful resource can also be a good way to be a friend.”
Wilkerson agreed that listening and trying to understand what your friends are going through should be a first priority. “As far as support goes it’s literally just being there,” Wilkerson said. “The amount of times I’ve wanted to just rant at someone and have them not solve my problems is up here,” she said raising her hand above her head, “and the amount of times I’ve ranted to someone and been like, ‘fix my problems,’ is on the first floor.” She said that people often think being depressed means she is always sad, but this is not necessarily the case. She said when she’s in a depressive episode she just does not feel anything and is emotionally numb. These feelings, however, are much less frequent than her normal, happy demeanor.
“For me there’s nothing more irritating than me actually being OK and someone just being like, ‘I know there’s something wrong with you.’” Especially with close friends, Wilkerson said if they ask if she’s OK and she’s really not, she will tell them something is wrong.
Gentry Jones is a psychology major who struggles with anxiety and anorexia. “We always lie to people when they ask if we’re doing OK and we just say ‘good,’ because that’s what you’re socially conditioned to do and I hate that,” Jones said. “I feel like if people were more authentic, the stigma wouldn’t really be a thing because I think people would realize how normal it is to not be normal.”
Jones’ symptoms of anxiety began at 15 when she attended classes at a local community college. However, last year was the first time she ever attended a counseling session, and she went as part of a class assignment. Jones said the experience changed how she viewed her anxiety and anorexia and she’s been voluntarily attending counseling ever since.
“You can be in a great spot in your life and still need counselling,” Jones said. “It’s self-care, that’s exactly what it is. It’s just taking care of your body. It’s like sleeping or eating or breathing.” Jones thinks that Western medicine too often separates mental health and physical health when they should be treated together.
Psychology is a relatively new science, beginning in the late 19th century. According to the History Channel, the U.S. was still practicing lobotomy surgery up until 41 years ago when the moral legitimacy of the treatment was called into question. Still, Jones is surprised that the stigma placed on mental health disorders is so prevalent in society.
“How are we not past this?” she asked. According to The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, every 62 minutes one person dies of a direct result of an eating disorder. That’s 23 people per day, 8,395 people per year dying of an eating disorder.
Still the question remains: how can you change public perception? According to Jones, you can change it by setting an example. A friend recently messaged Jones on Instagram, complimenting her on her body and asking what her secret was for staying so thin. “How do I answer that? ‘Oh, it’s my eating disorder,’ but I didn’t feel like I could say that, but I really wanted to,” Jones said. “‘Don’t compare yourself to me. You have no idea what I’m doing to be here.’” Jones said it’s hard to be vulnerable because we fear judgement from others, but it’s even more dangerous to not be vulnerable. She said that counseling is a safe space to be vulnerable, a place that is OK to not be OK.
Derrick Heldenbrand, a senior at JBU, spoke in a Residence Life forum about his struggle with treatment for his anxiety. “I saw it as a mark of failure to go to the Counseling Center or apply for a prescription for medication,” Heldenbrand said. “But, in doing those things as I’ve done those things now, they haven’t been a mark of failure. They’ve actually been some of the biggest steps that I’ve taken towards victory.”