Margaret Valenti shares her experience to acknowledge the severity of mental health issues on college campuses.

There is nothing that can prepare a person for the stress that college will induce, a place where students live and work closely with one another, far away from what is familiar with the added stress of student debt. The place that often causes this acute stress is the place that students live, which constantly reminds them of the hardships of college life. Much of the time, this stress is not addressed properly on college campuses or even acknowledged. There are few college students who transition from a permanent, lifelong residence to college dorm life well. While not every kid chooses to live on campus, due to the financial stress that accompanies the choice to go to college, it is clear that college life raises stress levels for students. However, many students do not choose to live off campus and the economic stress now placed on young adults who go to college is often debilitating. This raised level of stress often causes mental health problems when students find themselves unprepared to cope.

Mental Health

As of 2017, nearly one in five adults in the United States live with a mental illness, approximately 46.6 million people. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, of these 46.6 million, only 19.8 million of the original 46.6 million received mental health services. More women received these services than men and often young adults are the least likely to receive any services at all. These young adults range in age from eighteen to twenty-five, the common age range of college and graduate students. On college campuses, a void needs to be filled that is currently lacking in regards to addressing the mental health issues many students face daily due to their added social and economic stresses.

Coping with Mental Health Issues on College Campuses

As a college student, I know many people whose mental health issues either began or intensified with the stress of college. At Gettysburg College, where I am enrolled, there are limited resources to choose from. There are resident assistants that insist students talk to them about anything, though they are not trained to deal with mental health issues and encourage students to work any issues out themselves before seeking assistance. The next stop is the health center, where students can get assistance from two staff psychologists or graduate students who need to deal with hundreds of students who require assistance. Then, there is typically a wait of over a week to get an appointment.

Out of the twenty students who lived in my freshman year hall, three of them ended up dropping out before the end of the year. Students at college do not have the assurance of a home environment and are now thrust into the pressures of the realities surrounding college life. Imagine being required to sleep, eat, and socialize in the same place where you work and learn every day of the week. These living conditions would never be any adult’s first choice. With the advent of this increased stress, students often turn to drugs and alcohol to help them cope with everyday life. There was a student on my hall who ended up becoming an addict because of the pressure and dropped out sophomore year. Students also turn to different groups on campus such as sororities, fraternities, sports, and the hundreds of club options that exist to provide students with extracurricular activities. These extracurricular activities are often used by students as methods of coping with the stress of college life but can also add to already existing challenges by adding another obligation.

Challenges of Freshman Year

One of the problems I dealt with my freshman year was that I now lived in close quarters with people I did not know. As a lifelong introvert and someone who is shy, at the time I downplayed the effect that this new situation had on my mental health, which deteriorated throughout my freshman year and gradually got better. There were a lot of potholes that had to do with me trying to figure out where I fit in on campus, but my own struggle with mental health started before college. The problem for many people is that college takes the problems that already exist, if present, and usually make it worse. I began to mistrust the people around me and stopped being able to cope with that mistrust on my own. I would go on long walks at night for extended periods of time and often I was alone. Even the people who wanted to help were unequipped to deal with the situation and eventually it became clear that I needed to seek out the health center. Initially, I did not want to because I never thought that I warranted concern. It was not until I became scared of my own actions that I knew I had to talk to someone who could understand.

However, I was not the only one of my friends who dealt with the stress of living in such close quarters. The increased stress caused a friend of mine to experience high levels of stress and eventually, this developed into generalized anxiety. This stress was also compounded by the fact that my friend chose to go to a private college and now faced thousands of dollars of debt. The stress of that debt would haunt their entire time at Gettysburg College. Finally, they decided to transfer their junior year of college and have since applied to multiple community colleges as an alternative. Community college may decrease the level of inevitable debt but today any college choice puts financial stress on millions of students in the United States.

Colleges’ Response to Mental Health Issues

The National Council on Disability confirmed that colleges struggle to support the needs of students with mental health disabilities and challenges. Often, college health centers are unable to identify students in crisis due to the massive influx of mental health issues they need to dealt with. This lack of attention can lead to transfers, dropouts, or in extreme cases violence against oneself or others. The mental health crisis throughout colleges in the United States stems from a lack of acknowledgement of the seriousness of these issues. Young adults in college do not seek mental health services because the services provided are not adequate and because there is a stigma surrounding the topic.  

It is clear that there is a deafening silence surrounding mental health issues because of the social stigmas. Campuses must remove these stigmas through campus wide education and awareness about mental health for both students and staff so that mental health issues are addressed proactively. The risk of negatively impacting young minds due to mental health issues is too great to ignore.

Margaret Valenti is the Editor of Generation Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today. 

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