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Increased isolation

As awareness spreads, number of college students reporting mental illness rises

January 12, 2011

When depression stopped him from being the person he wanted to be, Collin Webster, a recent MSU graduate, knew it was time to seek help.

“I think it was a point where I felt I didn’t understand myself,” he said. “It was a feeling of total hopelessness — bitter and crippling hopelessness.”

Webster is one of a growing number of college students who have dealt with a mental illness, such as depression.

Out of the total number of students nationally who sought counseling last year, about 44 percent suffered severe psychological disorders, about a 16 percent increase from 2000, according to a recent survey by the American College Counseling Association, or ACCA.

Despite the prominence of mental illness, some students still feel isolated in their suffering.

“I think with mental health conditions — not just depression — everyone at the beginning thinks it’s unique to them,” Webster said. “There’s a feeling of loneliness. It’s difficult to reach out to people when you know there’s no way they can understand what you’re going through.”

Living in pain
In the last three years, the MSU Counseling Center went from serving about 2-3 percent of the student body to 7-8 percent, said Jan Collins-Eaglin, director of the Counseling Center.

The Counseling Center employs about 25 counselors and each counselor saw about 150 students in the 2009-10 academic year, she said.

According to various counselors, students most frequently suffer from depression and anxiety, although eating disorders, self-mutilation and substance abuse also are typical.

“In a college-aged population, depression and anxiety are extremely common and they can be very debilitating,” said Maureen Tyler, counselor and care manager at Olin Health Center.

For psychology senior Sara Tischler, obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, is a daily struggle.

In her apartment, dishes are cleaned, tables are wiped and trash is taken out meticulously. She said living with roommates sometimes can be difficult because of her illness.

“I want something thrown away immediately or I’ll be thinking about it all day until it’s done,” Tischler said. “It bothers me to the point where I can’t focus.”

Tischler goes to counseling and takes medication to help deal with her OCD. Before she began a treatment plan, her illness made her feel socially anxious on a daily basis. Sometimes if her boyfriend didn’t call her, she would lay on her bed and cry, assuming he wanted to break up with her.

“I knew I needed to get help when I realized that every day I was worrying about things that other people would consider trivial and I would cry and throw up,” Tischler said.

She said counseling has helped her regain control of her life.

“It’s getting better because as I’ve matured, I’ve learned it’s OK to seek help with that,” Tischler said. “I know they’ve seen it all and they don’t judge. … The (counselors) I’ve spoken to have helped me to step outside of myself and conquer my mental illness and make a success of my life.”

Increased need
More students have been turning to the Counseling Center and Olin Health Center to help cope with mental illness, according to MSU counselors.

The tensions of college life, such as moving and living independently for the first time, balancing work and school and the strain of financial burdens, often can lead to or exaggerate mental illnesses, ACCA President Brian Van Brunt said. Struggles choosing a major and planning for a career also can be stressful, he said.

“I think some of it, in my opinion, might be related to feelings of lack of purpose in life,” Van Brunt said. “Feeling a lack of (a) sense of purpose often feeds into that sense of depression.”

Although the staff works with as many students as possible, there are not enough staffing to meet increasing student demand, Collins-Eaglin said. Some students are referred to community mental health resources and psychologists or are put on a waiting list if the Counseling Center is overrun.

“That’s not our goal, that’s never our first step,” she said. “(But) we don’t have a big staff and there are thousands of students.”

Psychiatrists and primary care physicians at Olin Health Center also work with students to treat mental illnesses, and Tyler estimated that their psychiatric services served about 5,000 students and screened about 7,000 for mental illnesses in the 2009-10 academic year alone.

To accommodate for the increase in students dealing with mental illnesses, more psychiatrists were hired and time is set aside each week for psychiatrists and counselors to meet with students who have more urgent needs, such as thoughts of suicide.

Still, the staff struggles to meet the needs of students.

“We’ve been — over the past several years — steadily increasingly the amount of scheduling time we have and it’s always full,” Tyler said.

Paying it forward
An increased awareness of mental health programs at MSU partly might have led to the rise in students seeking help, Collins-Eaglin said.

Now that her illness is in control, Tischler speaks openly about her experiences to help others and promote understanding of mental illnesses. She said sometimes people have skewed perceptions about mental health disorders.

“I’ve had people (tell me) that the mental illness is not real, it’s just an excuse,” she said. “I’ve had people tell me that what I have is different from what they’ve seen on TV — people like to think they know everything about you.”

People with mental illnesses sometimes are feared unnecessarily and often are considered dangerous, Tischler said.

“We get a really bad rap,” she said. “People think we’re really fragile and vulnerable and (that they) have to tiptoe around us, and that’s not the case.”

Student groups, such as the MSU chapters of Active Minds and To Write Love on Her Arms, work to promote mental health awareness on campus and reduce stigmas and fear of students suffering from mental illnesses.

For Webster, helping others is a way of paying it forward. He helped found the campus chapter of Active Minds last year and plans on becoming a counselor.

“In particular, I want to work on college campuses — it is a situation I’m (familiar with),” he said. “I want to help students in the way that I was helped.”

After dealing with his own depression, geographic information science senior Ryan Schaner also worked to help others by joining To Write Love on Her Arms, a national group that works to support people with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.

“What we really want to do is spread awareness about depression and let people know there are resources on campus,” he said.

Even though reaching out to others and seeking help can be frightening, it’s an important step in the road to recovery, Schaner said.

“I don’t want anyone else to go through depression,” he said.

“If you have any issues with depression or anxiety, you should seek help any way you can. Whether it’s going to a hospital, going to support groups, talking to loved ones or talking to (a counselor), what matters is taking that first step.”

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