Top Menu

Colleges Cope with Increased Depression

I missed National Depression Screening Day on Oct 11.  Yom Kippur found itself in the middle of my blogging agenda. Like some college students I’m posting about, my “paper” is 3 days late.

The “Wall Street Journal,” however, was right on time with its feature, “College Students Flood Mental-Health Centers.” Their article covers  a “Beating Anxiety” workshop held at Ohio State University’s counseling center. The number of Ohio State students treated there has increased 43% over the past 5 years.

Other colleges record a similar startling increase in use of counseling centers.  The University of Central Florida, for example,  (12% increase per year for the past decade) and the University of Michigan (36% increase in the past 7 years). The University of Champaign/Urbana now runs 22 therapy groups.

The American College Health Association 2016 survey of 95,761 students noted a spurt of 11.6% for anxiety and 10.7% for depression this past year alone.

So now, let me tell you what I really think: college may be the most significant stressor we put on our adolescents.  Many wise heads have noticed that Americans adolescents have an unusually long ramp to maturity. Cutting them off from family support at age 18 may be a bit radical.

Helicopter parenting has become the meme du jour. We rarely let children suffer consequences of their mistakes so they can learn.  It’s the unusual parent who refuses to replace a lost bicycle or cell phone, or lets a child fight a bully on her own. A “good parent” checks her child’s Facebook page ands monitors browsing history. If a student fails a test, school policy requires contacting parents. I’m talking high school here.

Many American teens have never worked, since their parents’ pocketbooks and/or the children’s after school activities provide no need or no time.  Parents try to regulate their teens’  drinking, drugging, and sexual behavior, as well as access to their friends.  This effort rarely achieves its end goal, as I tell the families in my practice, but it is part of the extended parent-child relationship, which continues until the day that child (“adult child”?) leaves for college

Of course, young people need their parents. Where do students go first when they start their expensive and pretend-adult senior prom evening?  To the parents’ homes for pictures.

Shortly after that prom, good moms and dad’s spend the summer buying the right stuff for the kid’s dorm room and then drive or fly with them to college, where they unpack that stuff, take them to dinner, meet their roommates, and install their computers

Suddenly, this half-grown child has the kind of freedom only dreamed about in most parts of the world. Money is there, even if the teen had to contribute some by working summers.  Classes don’t require attendance, but they sure expect performance. Sleeping? Not at night, more likely during class hours.  Freedom equals sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And plenty of pizza.

There are people everywhere, but any one student may be desperately lonely. Noise is constant, at its peak when the drinkers arrive back at the dorm in the early morning hours. I know; I “slept” in my daughter’s dorm room one September night.


Food is everywhere, too, a particular challenge for anyone with diabetes or an eating disorder.  For the rest, it’s just the freshman 15 (pounds), which, like grade inflation, has increased from the freshman 10 when I went away. My college roommate would pound her body with her fists at night to punish herself for eating, while down the hall, my friend’s roommate stashed in their small dorm fridge bottles of vomit she had purged.

The challenges of adopting to life without family are magnified when the new freshman is from a another country.  The isolation for some foreign students is unimaginable—language, customs, strange food, radically different male-female interactions and, most painful of all, loss of family intimacy. If they’ve experienced the trauma of civil war, parental death or imprisonment, or other violence in their  country of origin, how easily can they become a cheerful college freshman?

Students with disabilities, another outreach group for universities, have it tough, too.  My daughter volunteered at college to read the required dosage on the bottle of insulin for a blind student to inject.  She’d never met this man previously. How lonely was life for that young blind man, who knew no friend or roommate for that task?

The dominant belief in America is that 18-year-olds should attend college away from home for the value of the “college experience,”  kind of like very expensive sleep-away camp.  That experience is separate from learning and studying, because the academic part can be accomplished, as it is in most other countries, by living at home while attending classes. Too often “experience” includes homesickness,  loneliness, anxiety, and depression, sometimes suicidal thoughts and self-harm. And every so often, a seriously disturbed student gets a gun.

After many years of working with college students, this is my advice for their concerned parents:  If your college children feel desperate and stays that way, let them come home to recuperate.  If they can’t eat or sleep–or the opposite, if they can’t stop crying or obsessing, if they call home morning, noon, and especially night, they’re in trouble.

Some psychological problems remit quickly when the stress is removed, and, with counseling , those students often continue college, either from home, or away with a stress-relief plan. For students with major psychiatric illness,  when life away from family support has stimulated or uncovered a serious problem, university life may be dangerous. The overworked college counseling centers may not be enough. Nor is a pep talk.









No comments yet.

Leave a Reply