Six hundred and fifty-five different students were seen at the health center last fall for anxiety and 58 of those visits were related to suicide, according to Kristine Benkeser, director of Student Health Services.
“That number is terrifying,” she said. “What is not terrifying is that people are coming to us now because we want them to come, if they have these thoughts.”
The anxiety epidemic among college students is on the rise, after reports show that it took over as the leading mental health concern in America in 2018. One in every four students will experience or develop anxiety during their college career, according to a study done by the American College Health Association in 2018.
There are 230 students on file in the Office of Disabilities for having an emotional or psychological disability such as anxiety. Natalie Burick, the director of Disability Services, said this makes up 32% of the total disability cases served at the office.
Dr. Dave Wilmes, associate provost for Student Success, said a lot of mental health concerns students have traditionally dealt with in college fell below anxiety this year.
“College can be a difficult time, because students can be going through a lot of changes in figuring out who they are, who they want to be, and how they are going to get there,” Wilmes said.
He also said that this is the first time for many college students to be completely on their own, without their parents telling them to do their homework, not to go out, or to go study, making college students ripe for anxiety.
Vanessa Vought, an SRU health educator, said mental health problems really start to develop for people in their early 20s, making it prominent as they are entering and moving through their college years. She also said that her team uses the American College Health Association, National College Health Assessment to develop results and see where SRU students fall in the realm of anxiety. Benkeser, the director of Student Health Services, said this health survey is taken by 80,000 students from 140 schools, making it the largest health database of college students in the country.
According to ACHS, NCHA, 63.4% of college students felt overwhelmed with anxiety in the past 12 months, as opposed to only 54% in 2014. 12% considered suicide linked to their anxiety in 2018, as compared to 8 % in 2014. 22% of all college-students nationally are treated for anxiety by a professional. 27% of Slippery Rock students suffer from anxiety, according to the ACHS database.
Madison Przicina, 22, a senior public health major and health education intern, said some of these rising statistics are alarming.
“The one that struck me the most was that 12% of students have seriously considered suicide because of their anxiety, and that anxiety is the top concern with 41.6% followed by depression at 36.4%,” Przicina said.
Benkeser said this is a disturbing trend, and that it’s important to know what is driving it.
“Finally, after years of public service announcements, the stigma is reduced in saying you are having a struggle, and that leads to a higher number of people feeling comfortable sharing or seeking help,” Benkeser said.
She also said there was not an effective way to treat anxiety before, so it was not diagnosed nearly as often as it is today. Benkeser said the world is more complex today, so students don’t have the same experiences to build the level of resilience prior generations had.
“Prior generations were expected to make good effort and also to fail sometimes, and then pick yourself back up, dust yourself off, and try harder again,” Benkeser said. “You did not fail and then totally give up, which is what we see when failure happens because students are unsure of what to do.”
She said students today feel that they need to be perfect in everything that they do all of the time, and that that triggers anxiety.
“Saying that you must be perfectly successful all the time, no matter what, is not how it works, and is not a reality-based approach to the problem,” Benkeser said.
Lindsay, a 21-year-old junior pubic health major who asked not to include her last name, said she has had a diagnosed case of anxiety since her freshman year of high school.
“My anxiety has gotten so much worse since being in college because there are such high expectations to be perfect, especially because I am trying to get into grad school,” Lindsay said.
Lindsay also said that she thinks anxiety needs to be taken more seriously.
“A lot of people throw the word around like it’s nothing, and some people who have never gotten diagnosed claim they have it,” she said. “Not a lot of people understand how severe it can be for some people.”
Benkeser, the director of Student Health Services, said another trigger for anxiety is the fast-paced world we live in.
“Every aspect of life is pictured so you can see what others are doing, and often have a fear of missing out or comparing yourself to others,” she said.
She said that social media is lopsided, because only the good things are posted and there is comparison among peers, creating a perfect storm for anxiety.
SRU students in need of support for anxiety issues have several options, such as attending group counesling sessions, signing up with Student Support, or taking a trip to the health center, according to Patricia Dixon, an intern with Student Support.
“We have cases coming to us at Student Support through the health center, and also through the counseling center,” Dixon said.
She said a lot of cases coming through her department are across the board, and that her colleagues help lead students in the right direction.
“We like to joke that we are like a GPS because we can reroute students to the right pathway for them, and help them know where to start,” Dixon said. “We help you choose your path after processing because we understand that sometimes it is overwhelming, so it is important to come to us first.”
She said they also had eight psychiatric admissions in the fall semester.
Melissa Nard, a licensed psychologist and an associate professor of psychology, said the counseling center does not track diagnoses, but noted that the numbers are higher than ever, making this a pressing concern.
“I think that in general, college students are faced with multiple stressors, like academics, social responsibilities, financial struggles, and family, at a time when they are new to navigating the responsibilities of adulthood,” Nard said.
She said the counseling center is one of the many tools that can be used to help support anxiety.
Evan Markowitz, a 21-year-old junior finance major, said he turns to support groups on campus to ease his confirmed case of anxiety.
“I utilize the resources on campus like the counseling center and exercise classes at the Arc to weaken my anxiety,” Markowitz said.
He also said he tries to incorporate mental health days into his schedule, and that because he has been dealing with anxiety for six years he’s learned how to better control it.
Benkeser, director of student health services, said that it’s important to note that there is medicine that can be taken for anxiety, but that “walk” and “talk” are also very essential.
“There are physiological issues with mental health,” she said. “The body does mot make enough of the balancing component, so that is where medicine comes into play to resolve those levels.”
She said walk and talk come into play as well, because sometimes the best way to treat anxiety is to talk it out with a counselor or a peer or to exercise regularly.
Lindsay, the student with anxiety, said she goes to the gym everyday to help cope with her daily struggles. She also takes full advantage of the Office of Disabilities for when she needs to take a test. Lindsay said she takes anxiety medication, and thinks it helps.
Wilmes, the provost for Student Success, said SRU offers a new program called “Boost,” where students can meet with their peers for support. Vought, the health educator, said the Hope Peer Educator leaders talk to freshman seminar classes about mental health and about the resiliency bootcamp that SRU offers. Benkeser, the director of student health services, said it’s important to balance school work with fun, to relieve stress. These are all ways the professionals said to ease anxiety. Meditation is one of the other methods Dixon from Student Support recommends to students feeling extreme stress or anxiety.
Vought said it’s important to take just as much care of mental health as physical health. She said that 75 to 90% of visits to primary care physicians are actually due to mental health rather than physical-related conditions.
“If you let chronic stress pile up and you aren’t getting proper care, you can actually start to see a lot of health problems, such as a weakened immune system, heart disease, and high blood pressure,” Vought said.
She also said that when we get sick with the flu, we do not just wish it away with positive thoughts; we see a doctor.
“That is exactly what needs to be done with mental health,” she said. “You can’t just deal with it. You need to pay mind to mental health.”
Wilmes said it’s important for students to take advantage of the resources at SRU.
“College is one time in life where you have all the resources right here, free and available to you,” Wilmes said. “The counseling center meets individually or in groups. There is also the Boost program, the health center, and it is so much easier in the college environment than when you are out on your own to seek this kind of help.”
Benkeser said that sometimes students who have friends or roommates dealing with struggles also become anxious.
“It is important to tell a friend that is struggling to ‘put your shoes on, we are going to the health center,’ it is as simple as that,” she said.