U.S. Colleges Improvise to Cope with Students' Anxiety ; It Surpasses Depression as the Most Common Mental Health Diagnosis

By Hoffman, Jan | International New York Times, June 3, 2015 | Go to article overview

U.S. Colleges Improvise to Cope with Students' Anxiety ; It Surpasses Depression as the Most Common Mental Health Diagnosis


Hoffman, Jan, International New York Times


Anxiety has surpassed depression as the most common mental health diagnosis among college students, bringing challenges for students and the health centers that treat them.

One morning recently, a dozen college students stepped out of the sunshine into a dimly lit room at the counseling center here at the University of Central Florida. They appeared to have little in common: undergraduates in flip-flops and nose rings, graduate students in interview-ready attire.

But all were drawn to this drop-in workshop: "Anxiety 101."

As they sat in a circle, a psychologist, Nicole Archer, asked, "When you're anxious, how does it feel?"

"I have a faster heart rate," one young woman whispered. "I feel panicky," another said. Sweating. Ragged breathing. Insomnia.

Causes? Schoolwork, they all replied. Money. Relationships. The more they thought about what they had to do, the students said, the more paralyzed they became.

Anxiety has surpassed depression as the most common mental health diagnosis among college students, though depression, too, is on the rise. More than half of students visiting campus clinics cite anxiety as a health concern, according to a study of more than 100,000 students nationwide by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.

Nearly one in six college students has been diagnosed or treated by a professional for anxiety in the past 12 months, according to the annual national survey by the American College Health Association.

The causes range widely, experts say, like mounting academic pressure at earlier ages, overprotective parents and compulsive engagement with social media. Anxiety has always played a role in the developmental drama of a student's life, but now more students experience anxiety so intense and overwhelming that they are seeking professional counseling.

As students finish a college year during which these cases continued to spike, the consensus among therapists is that treating anxiety has become an enormous challenge for campus mental health centers.

Like many college clinics, the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Central Florida -- one of the country's largest and fastest-growing universities, with roughly 60,000 students -- has had sharp increases in the number of clients: 15.2 percent over last year alone. The center has grown so rapidly that some supply closets have been converted to therapists' offices.

More students are seeking help partly because the stigma around mental health issues is abating, said Stephanie Preston, a counselor at U.C.F. Ms. Preston says she has seen the uptick in anxiety among her student clients.

Anxiety has become emblematic of the current generation of college students, said Dan Jones, the director of counseling and psychological services at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

Because of escalating pressures during high school, he and other experts say, students arrive at college with stress. Accustomed to extreme parental oversight, many seem unable to steer themselves. And with parents so accessible, students have had less incentive to develop life skills.

"A lot are coming to school who don't have the resilience of previous generations," Dr. Jones said. "They can't tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. A primary symptom is worrying, and they don't have the ability to soothe themselves."

Social media is a gnawing, roiling constant. As students see posts about everyone else's fabulous experiences, the inevitable comparisons erode their self-esteem. The popular term is "FOMO" -- fear of missing out.

And so setbacks that might once have become "teachable moments" turn into triggers for a mental health diagnosis.

"Students are seeking treatment, saying, 'I just got the first C in my life, my whole life just got shattered, I wanted to go to medical school and I can't cope,"' said Micky M. Sharma, the president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors and the head of Ohio State University's counseling center. …

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