High Anxiety: Colleges Are Seeing an Increase in the Number of Students with Diagnosable Mental Illness, Anxiety and Depression

By Weaver, Sandra Long | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, March 10, 2016 | Go to article overview

High Anxiety: Colleges Are Seeing an Increase in the Number of Students with Diagnosable Mental Illness, Anxiety and Depression


Weaver, Sandra Long, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


STUDENTS SEEKING PSYCHOLOGICAL HELP on their campuses are increasingly reporting anxiety over just about everything related to college life. "The students lack coping skills and emotional skills," said Mari Ross-Alexander, interim director of the counseling center at Tennessee State University in Nashville. "If the smallest thing goes wrong, they go from zero to one hundred that they want to die."

Those things could be a bad grade, breaking up in a relationship or just having a bad day.

"Nearly one in six college students has been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety within the last 12 months," according to a recent national survey by the American College Health Association.

Anxiety symptoms include panicky feelings, faster heart rates or insomnia. Students sometimes complain of feeling sweaty and just feel overwhelmed, according to the survey.

A 2013-2014 study by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) found that 47.4 percent of students had some type of anxiety, followed by 39.7 percent with some depression. Ross-Alexander said a higher number of Tennessee State students than usual participated in a depression-screening day on the campus last fall.

"In high school, the students were helped a lot to make sure they were successful," Ross-Alexander said. "They had hovercraft parents. They don't know what to do with their independence. They were used to getting good grades and when they get a bad grade, they want to kill themselves."

Some symptoms for depression are feelings of sadness, loss of appetite, change in weight, slowed thinking or speech, loss of interest in activities or social gatherings, guilt or anger over past failures, anger or frustration for no distinct reason.

The 400 directors who completed the AUCCCD Survey in 2012 reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems on their campus has increased in the past year. About 9 to 12 percent of students at small colleges, and 6 to 7 percent at larger colleges and universities seek help, the report said. New research also shows high-achieving African-American students enrolled in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) often face mental stress as well. Dr. Ebony McGee, assistant professor of diversity and urban schooling at Vanderbilt's Peabody College of Education and Human Development, found African-American students had "unexpected emotion and trauma." The study she co-authored with David Stovall of the University of Illinois was recently published in the educational journal "Educational Theory."

"Racism is a real thing on the college campus," McGee said. "When students look to counseling, they are often told their racialized experiences are in their head--that the college or university is color blind." The student "is told they are overly racially sensitive," she said, and often the campus has no black counselors for the students to see.

McGee, who has interviewed more than 200 students since 2009, said she's "seen too much black pain. The students are told they need to suck up the pain and just deal with it. The answer can't be, 'Just be more gritty' These are students who are the best and brightest.

"It is troubling how much we are asking black students to endure. They need a way to talk about their suffering," she said.

The mental stress is not just faced by black students at majority white campuses, she said. The problem also exists on historically black college and university campuses (HBCUs).

"Black students work hard to please the encouraging, caring black faculty," McGee said. "The black faculty tells the student you know you have to work twice as hard because you are at an HBCU. And the students work very hard trying to meet the expectations of the caring black professors."

In addition, black students at HBCUs in STEM fields often have a disproportionate number of foreign-born professors who have their own stereotypes of black students, McGee said. …

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