9.1.15 | Hara Marano
Step by well-meaning step, colleges are being transformed into something more akin to mental health wards than citadels of learning.
It was 3:18 in the morning. The dorm was quiet. Alyssa had sunk to the floor, not far from her bed. First to hit was a tsunami of nausea. Then her heart began galloping; she thought it might explode. Her breath came in staccato gasps. And her arms shook so implacably it took her minutes to type: “My…boyfriend…is…breaking…up…with…me…life…sucks…i…suck…i…feel…like…killing…myself.”
Whether troubled Facebook posts or middle-of-the-night cries to independent support services like Crisis Text Line, such messages, along with class absences, disturbing writing in course assignments, or direct threats to faculty, are a new common core of college life, where students in a fragile state of mind, like Alyssa, may be spotted by Students of Concern committees and funneled off for help. For increasing numbers of students all across the United States, disappointment now balloons into distress and thoughts of suicide. Lacking any means of emotion regulation and generationally bred on the immediacy of having needs met, they know no middle psychic ground: Mere frustration catapults them into crisis.
“Problems are more urgent than ever,” says Philip Meilman, professor of psychology at Georgetown University and director of its campus counseling center. When he took his first post after earning his doctorate four decades ago, he says, counseling centers mostly saw collegians struggling with developmental issues—homesickness, relationship breakups, lack of life direction. “That’s not what we see today,” he reports. “Students have more overwhelming concerns: ‘I’m cutting.’ ‘I’m anorexic.’ ‘I’m suicidal.’ ‘I’m alcoholic.’ ‘I’m bipolar.’ Or combinations thereof.” Developmental problems have not gone away, they are just masked by more pressing turmoil.
Nationally, 22 percent of collegians now seek therapy or counseling each year, reports Daniel Eisenberg, an economist at the University of Michigan whose Healthy Minds Study annually samples 160,000 students around the country. The number of those in counseling varies from campus to campus depending on its culture—10 percent at some large schools, nearly 50 percent at some small, private ones. The figure has been steadily growing for two decades and shows no signs of slowing.
Educators contend that students arrive at college psychically burned out from building portfolios of excellence, primed to crumble at the first significant disappointment they encounter. According to Benjamin Locke, associate director for clinical services at Penn State, one in three students now starts college with a prior diagnosis of mental disorder. Academic or social stress, late-night cram sessions, any disruption of routine in the looser-than-home campus environment can shatter their stability.