When reading the article, “Serious Mental Health Needs Seen Growing at Colleges,” by Trip Gabriel (The New York Times, December 19, 2010), I thought about the many students that I had referred to the Baruch Counseling Center. The in-depth article on the increase of depression and disorders within the young adult population confirmed my instinct and experience with students whose emotional states interfere with their academic performance.
“If I were gone,” a freshman wrote on Facebook, “would anybody notice?” Sending this student to the county psychiatric hospital was just one of the growing numbers of referrals to the Counseling Center at Stony Brook University led by Director Jenny Hwang. Increased stress during the final exam period, poor academic performance, and an overdose of anti-anxiety pills were other reasons for referrals and/or hospitalization.
According to the article’s author, “Stony Brook is typical of American colleges and universities these days, where national surveys show that nearly half of the students who visit counseling centers are coping with serious mental illness, more than double the rate a decade ago. More students take psychiatric medication, and there are more emergencies requiring immediate action.”
In each case, a ‘bystander’ was able to interrupt and support the person at risk before more serious consequences developed. As a college instructor, I am a ‘bystander’ who is in the position to observe student behavior. However, the chain to observe and support college students who are in emotional pain start with family and friends—then a college instructor. That doesn’t often happen.
When I do schedule an appointment with a student, my goal is to have a conversation to point out their behavior in the classroom and then, if needed, to encourage the student to visit the counseling center on campus. Other times, I’m the bystander as a student comes to me with their personal concerns. All of these pro-active students are females; those that I invite to meet with me are all males.
A recent graduate and one of my coaching clients proactively sought counseling and she’s very glad she did. Weekly counseling, combined with the coaching I provide on her workplace performance, is giving this young woman a sound foundation for moving forward successfully in her career. Every day is not easy for her; yet, she has the support and confidence that there is a person who can help her manage her emotional reactions on the job.
Last October, I made a presentation to the Women’s Issues Committee of the Employee Assistance Professional Association on the “Future of Employee Assistance: Issues, Skills, Approaches.” My topic focused on the ‘new’ workforce and the issues that the psychotherapists in the audience, if not already, will encounter as clients.
My research on this topic included an article on “Generation-Y: Most Depressed Generation” by Sophia Karathansis (www.TheTicker.com , February 6, 2010), to bring insight into the specifics of the profile of college students and those starting their careers. This article led me to “Expectations of Material Success Stalled and Gen Y More Stressed Than Ever” by Eilene Zimmerman (www.trueslant.com, January 18, 2010).
More research in Zimmerman’s article confirms the situation, “San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge finds that high school and college students are more stressed out than previous generations. The study found that young people today report more anxiety and mental health problems than kids of the same age reported in past generations—in fact, more mental health and anxiety than teens reported during the Great Depression.” Also included was research data which found that from 1938 to 2007, depression rose by five to eight times and bi-polar disorder rose by 40%.
Professor Twenge & W. Keith Campbell in their book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (Free Press, 2009) found a significant rise of self-esteem. In 1950, 12% of teenagers referred to themselves as an important person. In the late 1980’s, 80% of girls and 77% boys saw themselves as important.
Students who I have referred to the Baruch Counseling Center include those who have an inflated sense of self who project falsehoods about who they are to their classmates. When one student asked me why I thought it was a good idea for him to have counseling, I said, “It’s better to address any issues you have now before you take on a full-time career job and get married.” Other students I have referred include daughters who have depressed mothers; males who are self-destructive; and those who have lost a parent.
The Baruch Counseling Center has a full-times staff of five professionals plus interns who are Ph.D. students in psychology. If appropriate, a student can be referred to outside professionals for a higher level of care. The Center sees between 600-800 students a year with an even split between men and women.
Like the students at Stony Brook, the most common reasons to go to the Baruch Counseling Center are academic strain, lack of concentration, physical symptoms, and anxiety. Also, included are family; acculturation; and demands of living, especially for those who are foreign born and learning how to find their place in the American culture.
The last reason why students are seeking mental health treatment is pretty self-explanatory; Baruch is one of the most diverse campuses in the nation and that the 15,500 undergraduate and graduate students come from 160 different countries and speak 110 different languages.
The other reasons for the question, “Why have there been great increases in mental health disorders and the need to treat them?” are more elusive. One answer comes from The Ticker article that quoted Baruch psychology professor David Sitt, “Since technology has propelled us forward it creates a speed where everything is immediate and the window for gratification has narrowed.” Expectations have changed over the years as to what will bring happiness—and how long we will be happy with what we wanted.
There is also internal urge to be constantly connected. “We are changing our expectations of what we need in life to make us happy,” said Sitt. “We have this idea that if we don’t check our emails or post on Facebook every second then we missed out on something or that people have forgotten about us.”
Although I have a rule in my classroom that students are required to put away their cell phones and all technology, I see students whose hand is in their purse or under a coat or a piece of paper thinking that I don’t know they are using their phone. The fact that they don’t think I can see what they are doing is also problematic. It not only demonstrates a narcissistic idea that they cannot be disconnected from others for the 75 minutes spent in class. It is also an assumption that they are hidden from my view even though they are right in front of me, a delusion they harbor so that, like an addict, they can get a fix of technology.
The role I take as a bystander is a serious one. This is a role that more professors, friends, and family members should assume. They should assume it to help those students who are working to be a leader focus on their mental health needs.