Emory University graduate student Meredith Philyaw plans to put up a clothesline in the middle of campus.
Next, she’ll hand out pieces of paper for students to jot down their fears and pressures. Then she’ll hang those confessions on the line for the world to see.
It’s all part of an exercise meant to point out just how much stress and anxiety are a part of the college life experience.
“I want college students to see they are not alone, and they are not the only ones with secrets,” said Philyaw, who is 24 and getting a Ph.D. in health policy. “There’s this pressure to have good grades and for doing internships, and to do things that will look good on a resume. And there’s this pressure to have this great experience because people keep telling you, ‘It’s the best four years of your life.’ ... It can definitely be taxing.”
College counselors are seeing a sharp uptick in the number of students needing help coping with mental health woes.
The American College Health Association estimates 40 percent of male students and half of female students report feeling so depressed that, at least once in the past year, it interfered with their day-to-day functioning.
A new study looking at the mental wellness of college kids going back to 1938, conducted by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge, found a steady rise in the percentage of college kids experiencing severe anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders.
In fact, she found that, on average, five times as many as students in 2007 suffered from a mental illness as in 1938, according to an analysis of 63,706 college-aged students who took the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI, from 1938 through 2007.
In some areas, the jump was even higher. Depression went from 1 percent in 1938 to 4 percent in 1970 to 7 percent in 1990 to 8 percent in 2007.
Hypomania (which measures extreme anxiety and unrealistic optimism) went from 5 percent of students in 1938 to 26 percent in 1980 to 40 percent in 2007. Many believe the increase is due, at least in part, to increased awareness of mental health since the Great Depression. Administrators say they see more young people on edge and struggling to keep it together.
Mark McLeod, director of counseling at Emory University, said some academically driven students are deficient in social skills. For example, they might be straight-A students but not know how make friends or settle an argument or relieve stress.
He thinks the problem starts at a very young age when parents put a hyper-focus on academic achievement.
McLeod said he remembers watching his 9-year-old child in a baseball game and having two parents next to him, who should have been enjoying the outing, fretting about which classes their kids would get into. “There’s such a focus on academic success, and perhaps at the expense of very good social skills and having a balance,” he said.
He also thinks hovering — also known as “helicoptering” — parents can hinder emerging adults from developing basic life skills such as managing a budget, being organized and handling a roommate squabble.
McLeod estimates about 10 percent of Emory’s student body seeks services every year at the counseling center. But he believes closer to 20 percent of the college students need help.
A couple years ago, Emory University introduced an annual $50 mental health fee for all students to help support services at the counseling center. McLeod said the fee will help pay for Web-based patient portals and other services. But McLeod said the fee is also aimed at sparking dialogue and bringing more attention to mental wellness.
College counseling centers are also developing new programs — from meditation classes to workshops on making new friends and body-image programs.
At Agnes Scott College, they hold “Dog Days” in the weeks leading up to finals. Faculty and staff bring their dog to campus. College kids play with the dogs as a “stress reduction activity.”
College students themselves are playing more active roles in easing stress on campus. Philyaw is part of a college group called Active Minds, which is designed to erase the stigma of mental illness and encourage young people to get the help they need.
The group hands out no-stress goodie bags with chocolates and mellow music CDs, and members post fliers on campus reminding students to be sensitive.
Linda Vo, a 22-year-old graduate student at Emory University, said she used to be embarrassed to admit that she went to the counseling center for help when she was an undergrad at the University of Illinois.
“People would react like, ‘What is wrong with you.’ ... You may feel different at different times. Mental health is a continuous thing,” said Vo. “So I would be afraid to tell my friends.”
But Vo said she knew she needed help. She felt enormous pressure juggling academic work and an on-campus job. Good wasn’t good enough, she said, because she felt she needed to excel to get into a solid graduate program.
These days Vo, who is a member of the Student Health Advisory Committee at Emory, makes a point of getting at least seven hours a sleep a night. She’s learned calming breathing techniques, and she takes 20-minute mini-breaks. But she’s also at ease admitting she gets professional help from time to time to help with the stress of college life and life in general. “I still think a lot of people are afraid to get help, and it’s still taboo,” she said, “but people shouldn’t be afraid to get help.”
Twenge believes a public that often focuses on status and looks feeds the problem.
In 2007, 74 percent of college students said it was either very important or essential to be well off financially. In 1966, only 42 percent of college students felt that way.
In 2007, only 49 percent of college students thought it was important to develop a “meaningful life philosophy.” In 1966, 86 percent of students polled agreed it was important to have one, according to the American Freshman Survey, conducted by UCLA.
Brittany Gentile, a University of Georgia psychology doctoral student who co-authored the study with Twenge, said the study is a reminder that young people need to stop obsessing over making it big and focus more on relationships.
“The problem with focusing on things like having a lot of money and having a nice job is that it makes you dissatisfied with the life you have now. So, by having unrealistically high goals, you set yourself up for a lot of disappointment.”
As far as developing relationships, Twenge believes young people also need to unplug and have more real-life, face-to-face encounters. Tweeting and Facebook chatter, she said, is “junk food” and can’t replace the development of relationships through real life experiences.
Holly Byrd, director of the office of personal counseling at Agnes Scott College, said she would like to see parents and educators spend more time figuring out what a child’s particular talent may be — and realize it might not be academics.
“Help them find balance and what their niche is. I see a lot of times they are trying to live up to the expectations of society and their parents and that may not be in keeping of who they are. It’s a tricky thing. We live in a society that embraces achievement,” said Byrd. “And I would like to see more young people have a sense of balance and see that it’s OK to have a ‘B’ year and it’s OK to take a night off from studying and watch a movie.”
About Active Minds
Active Minds was founded in 2001 by Alison Malmon, then a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, after the suicide of her brother Brian Malmon a year earlier.
Troubled that her brother, who was popular and excelling academically, struggled with depression in silence, she was convinced the stigma surrounding mental illness prevented him from getting help. Active Minds members work with counseling centers and make sure college students know where to turn for help. Active Minds now has about 240 chapters across the country. For more information, go to www.activeminds.org.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.