BU Today

Health & Wellness

Students in Crisis: Depression, Anxiety on Rise

Economy, helicopter parents (and Facebook?) to blame

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Illustration by Reuben Buchanan (CFA’12). Photo below by Kalman Zabarsky

Depression and anxiety on college campuses have risen to epidemic proportions. There are a variety of suspected causes for the alarming trend, which is supported by numerous studies, including a February 2010 Healthy Minds Study finding that 20 percent of BU students surveyed fit the criteria for anxiety or depression.

Today we begin a three-part series examining depression and anxiety among BU students. Part one offers an overview and a look at what’s behind the increase and who is most at risk. In part two, we show the faces of depression and anxiety through a series of candid interviews with students. The series concludes with information on how to get help, what that help involves, and how some students suffering from depression and anxiety—treatable conditions—have found hope, and a way out.

Carrie Landa scans her weekly schedule and shakes her head. The computer screen is a mélange of colors, each with a meaning. Light green signals an open spot for new patient intakes at Student Health Services Behavioral Medicine, where she works as a staff psychologist. Turquoise is for emergency appointments. Gray floats as lunch (or more space to cram in work). And cream reveals open slots for patient counseling.

There is no cream; the inn is full.

This is why: one of every three college students nationally, according to recent surveys, has sought mental health counseling. At BU, one of five undergraduate and graduate students surveyed screened positive for depression or anxiety. About a quarter of that group report that they have seriously contemplated suicide.

“I started here in 2009 and before that everybody had said this time of year, after spring break, is the worst,” Landa says. “This year we’re all saying this is the worst it’s ever been.”

In just 10 years, the number of students receiving services at Behavioral Medicine has more than doubled, to 10,523 last year. Landa estimates that figure will jump again this year, by 2,000 students, with the overwhelming majority treated for depression and anxiety.

There is also unsurprising evidence that far more students need mental health services than have sought care. The 2010 Healthy Minds Study, an annual national online survey of college students about mental health issues by the University of Michigan, reveals that 36 percent of the 1,400 BU student respondents thought they needed mental health help during the previous year. Yet less than two thirds of those said they sought help.

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky for Boston University Photography.

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky for Boston University Photography.

College years have long been a time of psychological stresses. As academic pressures rise and fall, so do anxiety levels. Roommate and relationship problems, homesickness, and adjustment to college life plague students now as before. And the college years are when most people question and explore who they are—which can be both exciting and unsettling.

But those situations don’t explain the sudden surge of students seeking help for depression and anxiety. Why is this generation, now more than ever, in need of help? The answer, according to mental health professionals, reflects what is ailing society in general.

Margaret Ross, the director of Behavioral Medicine at BU, says American culture has changed dramatically since she started counseling students decades ago.

“All the technology has made it different growing up,” Ross says. “Parents have micromanaged the lives of their children. They do everything on computer. They don’t have the common sense that people in the past may have had in knowing when they need help.”

The global economic slump has taken its toll as well, Ross says. Students worry that there won’t be jobs when they graduate. Parents have had to dig deeper into their pockets to finance a college education, some taking out a second mortgage, and that knowledge wears on students, who feel pressure to enter a field that is hiring instead of one they like.

Dori Hutchinson, director of services at BU’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, speaks often with students struggling with the choice of passion versus profession. “Somewhere along the line as they mature,” she says, “they’re recognizing that this is not who I am but this is what I’m supposed to be. And so that discordance can be really painful for kids.”

Hutchinson sees how students feel pressure to succeed even before they enter college. They come to BU with “this headset that Bs are not good enough,” she says. “It’s driven by this collective anxiety that we have in our world these days that you have to be good at everything you do.”

Parents also hover over their children too closely, she says. “We parent differently and we protect our kids from a lot of normal disappointments in the name of getting a leg up. They get to college and their parents aren’t here to do that anymore. There are kids who can’t decide what to choose to eat. That creates anxiety.”

Landa sees another culprit in the mix: Facebook. The social media website is a tool students use constantly to interact with friends, all the while comparing how their virtual lives measure up (or don’t) to those of others. “There is a very big need for immediacy in our culture and almost an intolerance of things that are uncomfortable or bad,” she says.

She also says that in recent years more students arrive at college already in treatment for depression, anxiety, or personality disorders. “We do have students here ill enough that 20 to 30 years ago they wouldn’t have been coming to college,” Landa says. “They are showing up here and succeeding here, but still needing the support that we offer.”

That is where Hutchinson and her colleagues can step in. At the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, staff members help students learn how to manage the responsibilities and pressures of schoolwork and social life. “We do whatever it takes to help them stay here at the University,” Hutchinson says.

At BU, a broad cross-section of students makes use of mental health services—from freshmen to U.S. military veterans—but some groups are more at risk for developing depression or anxiety. Among them are minority and international students, those who identify as LGBTQ, athletes, and students involved in Greek life, according to University mental health professionals.

“Any time you feel ostracized, not in the mainstream, or discriminated against, I think that can create some depression,” says David Seeman, a senior staff psychologist at Behavioral Medicine.

International students can have a tough time adjusting simultaneously to college life and to a new culture. Their support network of friends and family is thousands of miles away, and their home culture may frown on seeking help for mental health problems.

“I think BU is a hard place for people from other cultures,” Seeman says.

Athletes are also under tremendous pressure to excel in the classroom as well as on the rink or the field. Many arrive on scholarship and fear their funding will be jeopardized if they slip up.

And joining Greek life, Hutchinson says, can be a double-edged sword for students. Fraternities and sororities are communities where students find like-minded people invested in community service, but they are also “the place where parties happen” and where bad decisions are made.

Landa and her colleagues hope to guide the students who visit them toward better decisions, and better health. Her schedule is busy, but her energy seems boundless. After a quick working lunch, she is ready to welcome the next student.

Those interested in seeking free, confidential mental health counseling can contact Student Health Services Behavioral Medicine, the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, and the Samaritans of Boston suicide hotline.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

Tomorrow, BU Today will publish “It’s So Easy to Disappear,” part two of the three-part “Students in Crisis” series.

7 Comments

7 Comments on Students in Crisis: Depression, Anxiety on Rise

  • Alex Ashlock on 04.25.2011 at 7:26 am

    depression

    I’m just curious whether there are any statistics regarding depression among BU staff and faculty?

  • Anonymous on 04.25.2011 at 9:51 am

    Choice of career

    Another major influence on what to do after college is the availability of health insurance. The current changes will help a little with that, but choices after age 26 are completely impacted. Stay in Massachusetts whatever the opportunities elsewhere?

  • Donald Trump on 04.25.2011 at 10:07 am

    You wonder why?

    How about the grade deflation at this bureaucratic school that couldn’t care any less about their students? Professors interested only in their research, extremely low GPAs to boost the ego of the school, yea, that’s why students at BU are depressed.

  • Anonymous on 04.25.2011 at 3:08 pm

    SAD, Vit D

    Could it be seasonal affective disorder or Vitamin D deficiency? Both are rampant in northern climes. One of the many symptoms of both is depression.

  • Anonymous on 04.26.2011 at 11:57 am

    “Could it be seasonal affective disorder or Vitamin D deficiency? Both are rampant in northern climes. One of the many symptoms of both is depression.”

    As someone with a sibling that suffers from Vitamin D deficiency, I must say that, while it is a possibility, it cannot adequately explain the abundance of depression cases. Sunlight exposure and multivitamins will not fix actual depression.

  • a BU undergrad on 04.26.2011 at 2:24 pm

    the real problem--not facebook

    I am so glad to see that the issue of student dissatisfaction and unhappiness at BU is finally being raised. I give some props to BU for publishing this article.

    I think there are good points made in this article about the causes of student depression and anxiety, but they don’t dig deep enough. Facebook and the economy make the problem worse, but they are not the root. The elephant in the room is that BU is a very large research university that does not devote enough time or energy to supporting its undergraduate students.

    I think the biggest reason students struggle at BU is because they feel like they’re totally on their own without any help. For example, until reading this article, I had no idea of the resources SHS offered for students dealing with depression and anxiety–BU needs to be there more for its students. Like the article said, it’s way too “easy to disappear” here.

    The “You Wonder Why?” post articulates well the feeling that many students have here–that they are just a number to their teachers and the administration. It’s easy to feel that way at BU: as an undeclared CAS student without an adviser, or in the gigantic Morse auditorium lectures where you rarely get a chance to talk to your professor. BU freshman, in particular, are very vulnerable to feeling alone at this school–which is why there needs to be way more of an effort at integrating freshman, especially those who aren’t placed in Warren or West for housing. That first semester can strongly shape how a student views their experience at BU; it can be exciting and inspiring or totally discouraging.

    Other problems are that many classes are way to big, a huge percentage of faculty is adjunct and/or has never received proper training to teach, and communication between schools is poor–how many BU students do you know that have been inconvenienced because their adviser didn’t know what was up with the university?

    This is not to say that everyone is unhappy at BU, or that the school has done nothing right. From what I’ve heard, the engineering majors receive a lot of academic support and tend to know their classmates and teachers better than other majors, like Psychology (which has the highest student-teacher ratio). And, it’s important to recognize that an emphasis on research and funding is necessary, to a certain extent, for BU to be able to afford resources and a good education for its students.

    And, I do believe that at least some people in the administration care about making the school better for undergrads. For example, a task force recently assessed the university and has started the “One BU: A Connected University” initiative (http://www.bu.edu/strategicreport/report/).

    But, will the recommendations made by the task force be put into effect? BU is a huge school with a lot of red tape, and–based on its history–few people in the administration who are willing to put in the time and energy to make BU a better place for undergrads.

    Right now, whether or not a student has a good experience at BU (and I’m talking about the average 18-21 year old, who doesn’t have all the tools or independence to succeed without help) depends on luck. Maybe that student happens to get the good biology professor whose actually earned a teaching certificate and isn’t just a researcher filling his class quota to get his grant from BU. Or, maybe the student doesn’t and loses faith in professors at BU and stops trying to form relationships with them–which is so unfortunate, because having relationships with your professors is not only fulfilling, but necessary to students’ learning and personal growth.

    Regardless, a student’s experience shouldn’t be based on luck. BU students, especially for how much their education costs, should enter college with the support system they need to succeed.

    I am very proud of BU for raising this issue. But, if there is going to be any real change, we need to take a hard look at what’s really causing the problem–and not blame it on Facebook and the economy, two factors which the university can’t do much about.

  • Paul on 04.27.2011 at 5:55 am

    Reality check please?

    This is a super important topic. But will people please stop putting Facebook as the number one reason for depression. It’s very easy to lay blame.

    The key point NOT raised in this article, which is a huge pity because most people know about it, is that screening is better now than in the past. We have a better mental health system now than then. We are more aware as a society of what mental health issues are and how they manifest.

    My strong hunch is that there has always been 30% of the student body who would qualify as clinically depressed.

    So, this is a positive trend: we are attacking problems now that will be worse problems in the future. Yet you paint it as a negative trend because you are looking at it narrowly.

    Many people may not remember this, but in the late 80s, many students who went for mental health counseling were turned away. This was a trend here, at MIT and elsewhere. There were several very high profile suicides that ended up in some very embarrassing self-analysis and lawsuits. I am not sure if BU was spared the lawsuits, I know MIT was sued in one or two very large cases. So now we don’t turn a blind eye. That is the difference. Why wasn’t that said in this article?

    I see you finally got to this point a bit in Part III. Too bad you couldn’t get that in Part I.

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