As an ever increasing number of millennials report having mental health issues, the most prevalent problem they seem to be facing is no longer depression, but anxiety, an issue that plagues AU, where 91 percent of students surveyed in 2013 reported feeling “ so stressed they couldn’t function.”
Over 5 million college students suffer from mental health issues, according to reports from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and research shows that mental health problems in millennials seem to be growing.
There are a wide range of mental health afflictions, but on campuses across the country, anxiety has shot past depression in recent years to become the most prevalent mental health issue among students.
AU Counselling Center Director Traci Callandrillo, Ph.D. said that AU saw the same shift toward more and more students going to the Counseling Center for anxiety-related issues three or four years ago when the trend began nationally.
AU may even be a harder place to work out some of these questions than most colleges. According to a 2013 study from the National College Health Assessment, AU has some of the most stressed students in the nation.
Factors like social media, “helicopter parents,” and narcissism have been cited overwhelmingly in the national, popular conversation on mental health as the reasons for why millennials are experiencing so much stress and anxiety, but Callandrillo said that the reason for college students being so stressed out could be any, or none, of these factors. She said that anxiety is more of a result of living in a stressful world and being placed into the intense environment of college.
“It’s the first time in your life that you get to really say ‘I didn’t like that way of being’ or ‘My identity is something that I haven’t had a chance to really explore.’ That’s stuff [that occurred] before you came to school,” Callandrillo said. “It’s healthy to have a place to work that out, but it can also be really painful and hard.”
Jimmy Ellis, the manager of student success and retention at AU, surveys first-year students each year through the MAP Works survey, a survey meant to gauge how well first-year students are doing during their fall transition. The survey asks them about their social and academic transition to college, which gives insight into the state of mental health on campus.
“At AU, it seems that stress is a currency of sorts; to be so busy that you’re stressed, that you’ve got so much going on, really gives students cachier, I think, with each other, and our students, in their quest and search to find those more professionally oriented experiences, add to that level of stress that they experience,” Ellis said.
Ellis has been conducting the survey for the past five years and in the last couple of years has also found a decrease in students’ sense of belonging and connection with their peers through narrative answers given through the survey.
“At AU, it seems that stress is a currency of sorts."
Oftentimes in an academically and professionally competitive environment like AU, students view each other as adversaries rather than peers who can help build a community of caring for others’ mental health, according to Callandrillo.
“If you don’t want to feel this way, collectively, let’s notice each other then,” Callandrillo said. “What’s getting in the way of that? Because I think for a lot of students they feel the pressure part but what they don’t feel so much is the connection and some sense of ‘Oh okay, there are other people here, and they might actually be interested in supporting me, and I can support them.’”
Mental Health Counseling at AU
AU’s Counseling Center has struggled to accommodate its high student demand, namely with long wait times and a lack of one on one time with staff members. Callandrillo said that the Counseling Center is the touchpoint for mental health resources on campus as it offers services such as urgent-care and individual or group therapy, but like many university counseling centers across the country, it is feeling overwhelmed by the volume of students seeking help.
“I think that the resources that we have here at our University, which I know many students don’t feel like there are enough of them in terms of individual resources for therapy, but they are here,” Callandrillo said. “So take advantage of that opportunity, even if you have to wait a little bit to get into it. Take advantage of that opportunity and learn about yourself.”
Jessica Phillips, a sophomore in the School of Communication and College of Arts and Sciences, said she has had a positive experience using the Counseling Center, where she said the staff was extremely helpful in giving her a treatment plan and letting her know where she could use her insurance.
“The problems with the Counseling Center certainly aren't the staff: it's the lack of staff and resources,” Phillips said in an email. “There have been times where students will have to wait over two weeks just to get a consultation appointment. When it comes to mental health care, two weeks can be an excruciatingly long time.”
Outside of the professional services offered in the Counseling Center, the Center also hosts various events across campus that aim to take help alleviate stress and remove some of the stigma from mental health care, such as the annual event Dogs on the Quad. According to Callandrillo, Dogs on the Quad not only alleviates stress, but helps remove mental health stigma because people are not usually embarrassed to come out and pet dogs.
But for students like Morgan Grant, a School of Public Affairs junior passionate about mental health, these resources just aren’t enough.
Grant believes that the University is great at handling stress and anxiety related to academics, but says that when handling more pressing concerns such as PTSD and finding a good clinician, the University is seriously lacking.
“The Counseling Center does what it can, and it provides an incredibly important service, but there needs to be something else too,” Grant said. “It’s great to do self-care, and to talk about our feelings and deal with stress related to academics, but that is the limitation.”
Phillips also said that there is confusion when it comes to talking about self-care versus psychological disorders.
“I do think AU sometimes confuses a lack of self-care or poor mental health with having a psychological disorder,” Phillips said. “Of course, it's important for everyone to take care of their mental health, but it's important to remember that having a psychological disorder isn't something that can be fixed with healthy eating and meditation, and that having poor mental health does not mean you have a disorder.”
The Campus Conversation
Grant said that in her personal experience and her experience advocating for better student mental health resources, the mental health discourse and action on campus too narrowly focuses on the stress of academics.
“There’s a very huge misunderstanding once you move away from the basic stress and anxiety of academics,” Grant said. “There is a huge lack of support and understanding of mental health issues on this campus and it’s appalling and it’s really disappointing.”
Callandrillo says that the Counseling Center is meant for short-term therapy and that her staff is always thinking of the next steps for students, which may mean recommending them to an off-campus specialist.
“Your general practitioner isn’t going to do open heart surgery, [and] we’re not going to do something that goes beyond what we can offer because of the resources that we have,” Callandrillo said. “So, our individual therapy tends to be shorter term, and it tends to be focused on things that we can do in our setting, and the good news is that most college students need that. They don’t need something specialized, they need what we can offer here.”
Phillips believes that the University does focus on trauma, particularly associated with sexual assault, and with good reason, as one in four women in college will be sexually assaulted.
“That being said, I think AU goes to extremes with mental health care. The focus either seems to be on trauma, or just going to the Counseling Center for one visit to fix your problems instantly,” Phillips said in the email. “I don't think it does the best job of acknowledging that some people need consistent mental health care, like therapy or medication, over time.”
Grant also believes the Counseling Center does not have the resources to give student mental health advocates what they need in order to enact meaningful change, which has made communication between student advocates and the AU administration on issues such as trigger warnings less than ideal.
“It’s really bumpy as the faculty resolution [condemning the use of trigger warnings] demonstrated,” Grant said. “It was made completely without student input, so they’re acting on their own and without guidance from students, who are honestly pretty rational and deserve to have a voice in this type of situation.”
Trigger warnings have been one of the controversial topics surrounding mental health that has split national discourse and has prevented the growth of a student mental health advocacy community on campus, according to Grant.
“I feel like a lot of students are really, really discouraged by a lack of empathy for these types of issues and no one really wants to stand up for it anymore,” Grant said. “It’s just exhausting because no one’s listening. It’s like screaming at a brick wall.”
Callandrillo said that it is encouraging to hear students talking about mental health and that for the Counseling Center’s part, they are trying to listen to them and accommodate their needs.
“There’s always going to be a limit to how much an individual therapy we offer and the demand really outpaces the resources,” Callandrillo said. “I know that’s frustrating for students, I get that. I’m not going to double or triple my budget -- that’s not a decision that I can make -- but what I can do is challenge myself and my staff, to a certain extent, to push outside of that being the only answer.”