The Pulse: Colleges Face Surge in Reports of Anxiety, Depression Among Students

Dec 29, 2016

For college students, the academic year is well underway. Students have spent the first semester making new friends and adjusting to classes and dorm life.

But unlike previous generations, these young adults are more likely to report anxiety and depression.

And that has campus mental health centers struggling to keep up with demand.

At Keene State College in New Hampshire, English major Aidan Bolduc sits near a window in the atrium, as other students banter over summer escapades and coursework.

Bolduc is graduating soon and talks about life after college: “I want to work on [writing] pieces I have here,” he says, “but I also have dreams of writing a novel and dreams of creating a game or two.

Despite his calm demeanor, Bolduc says he struggles with anxiety and some bouts of depression.

He describes his first panic attack. He was a freshman at UNH, before transferring to Keene.

“I remember being on the corner of a normal, sunny day and it was beautiful outside. I couldn’t remember where I was going or what I was doing. I had pains in my stomach, and swimming thoughts. I was so lost.”

At the urging of a friend, Bolduc sought a therapist on the UNH campus. He says, “What a counselor can really do is listen actively and guide you to your own conclusions.”

Bolduc is one of an increasing number of students who look at the campus counseling center as another vital asset, much like the climbing gym or the football field.

Joan Glutting is the interim director of the UNH Counseling Center. She says, “For sure, usage is up and it’s up everywhere. On the first day of school, we had 60 intakes in one day. We’re busy now, and we’ll get busier."

For UNH, that’s a 60 percent spike in therapist visits over the last decade.

Across the country the number of students who see a therapist at college is growing at five times the pace of enrollments, according to the Penn State Center for Collegiate Mental Health.

That’s also the case at Keene State College, where Brian Quigley runs the counseling center.

“About 65 percent of students who come in,” says Quigley, “are for issues around depression and suicide, anxiety and adjustment to phase of life and other issues of identity.”

Quigley says one reason for the surge is that many students manage their disorders like depression and bipolar with psychiatric medications. And many are coming to college who couldn’t before.

But Quigley also indicts a digital culture that favors virtual rather than face-to-face communication. And that means students develop superficial versus authentic friendships.

“Things we disclose or not disclose, the level of vulnerability and intimacy in those relationships are dramatically different,” says Quigley. “I believe this generation’s struggle with depression relates to the way they feel about themselves and how they develop relationships with others.”

But social media isn’t all bad, he adds. This generation knows how to use it for emotional support.

And they’re also more willing to go to therapy.

UNH junior Rosie Muise rushes into the cafeteria a little late for our meeting, her wet hair pulled back into a ponytail.

She says her first manic episode occurred in the beginning of her sophomore year, after which her parents took her to the Portsmouth Hospital.

“It turns out I’m bipolar,” she says. “Even though I was so exhausted, I still had so much energy that I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t do anything. It’s an overwhelming experience - especially in the midst of classes.”

Muise resided in the hospital for six days, and then went back to school — but not before going to the counseling center.

“It [the counseling center] really helped me because they understood everything and helped me transition back into campus life.”

Muise now sees a psychiatrist off campus. Most college counseling centers can’t treat students like Muise long term. And many, like UNH, aren’t open after hours.

Musie remembers a day she had a bad panic attack. “I wanted to hurt myself,” she says, “but [then again] I didn’t want to. So I just needed a safe place to be until it passed.

Unfortunately, the school canceled classes because of the snow. And the counseling center was closed.

“There was, like, nowhere for me to go,” says Muise. Eventually, Muise called a friend.

Ted Kirkpatrick was named the dean of students at UNH in January. After getting calls at two in the morning about students in crises, he realized the college counseling center needed to expand its hours.

Kirkpatrick says this past year the university sent 42 students to a psychiatric emergency room.

In the last four years, the counseling center increased its budget nearly 25 percent and added staff.

And now, says Kirkpatrick, “I’ve charged them [the counseling center] with figuring out a way that there can be a licensed clinician in the state of NH who is on our staff in the middle of the night that I can call if I have an acute incident and a student in real crisis.”

Kirkpatrick hopes to have a plan in place before the end of the semester.

In New Jersey, the suicide of a university student prompted a new law that mandates colleges to provide trained therapists round the clock.

Ohio and Texas are considering similar measures.

Keene State College handles after-hour emergencies with a hotline that connects students to mental health professionals in a remote location.

Colleges are trying to reach their students before a crisis hits.

At UNH, senior Kirstin Pesaresi took an online course that simulated real-life conversations around suicide.

So when a student she didn’t know posted ideas of ending her life, Pesaresi knew how to react.

“I wrote to her privately on Facebook,” says Pesaresi. “ I told her if she needed anything, I was there for her. She was a little defensive at first, but she came around after a few conversations back and forth.

Persaresi also runs the Stop the Stigma club on campus that gives students with anxiety or depression a safe place to talk.

Similar efforts happen at Keene State where Allison Sonia heads the Active Minds group.

“There’s a lot of stigma around not feeling great,” says Sonia. “So, people will always try to play like they’re doing awesome. And I’m sure some of they are — but also maybe not. “

And Sonia says college students shouldn’t have to struggle alone.

"This report comes from the New England News Collaborative. Eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."