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The Cost of Success
For millions of high school seniors, the idea of going off to college is one filled with excitement and eagerness to gain independence. No more curfew, no one telling them when to study, or turn off the television; finally, freedom!
However, are the expectations and pressure placed on college students today taking a toll on their mental health?
The pressures that students face today are much different from those of previous generations. Maintaining a high grade point average and graduating with honors is no longer a student’s only goal. Students are expected to be active on campus, participate in student clubs, play collegiate or intramural sports, volunteer, build their resume by obtaining internships or holding a part-time job, and still have time for social activities. The stress of trying to live up to these high expectations are, very literally, driving many students to the edge.
Suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among college aged students (APA.org), and according to The University of Berkley, nearly half of all students have felt so depressed that they have had a tough time functioning with day to day responsibilities during the past school year. In the fall of 2014, nearly 21 million students were enrolled in colleges and universities across the country (NCES.ed.gov). Of those 21 million, 2.1 million will consider suicide at least once during their school career.
The end of a romantic relationship or betrayal of a friend could be seen as nothing more than an unfortunate life event for a 30-something, but it could be earth-shattering for an 18-year-old. The human brain does not finish developing until we are about 25-years-old, particularly the areas that are associated with impulsivity and emotional regulation (phillymag.com). So, it’s no coincidence that these young adults are struggling in coping with the life changes and expectations that are thrown at them in their late teens and early twenties.
Social media has also played a role in inflating the idea that college should be a walk in the park with the occasional toga party and tailgate. In a world where girls gauge their self-worth by the number of “Likes” their pictures get, society is creating an illusion that everyone else is having fun and happily taking selfies at the local Starbucks each morning. No one posts pictures when they are having a rough day, or of themselves in bed because they simply couldn’t muster the courage to leave their dorm room for yet another lecture. College kids are comparing themselves to an imaginary world . . . a world that only allows you to “Like,” and gives you a glimpse into the seemingly “always happy” lives of everyone else.
In 2014, U Penn endured the loss of six students to suicide. One young woman’s story has launched itself into national news headlines.
Madison Holleran, 19, was a smart, beautiful and talented track athlete with the world at her fingertips. On the surface, Madison had it all. Only her parents, counselor, and close friends knew that she was struggling with depression and crippling stress. She felt that her 3.5 GPA wasn’t good enough since her GPA was 4.0 in high school, she was no longer the fastest runner on her track team, and with all of her time spent studying and running, she never had time to enjoy the “college experience.” Ingrid Hung, Madison’s friend, described one conversation in particular about going home for Christmas break, in an interview with PhillyMag.
“I’m not sure how I’m even going to talk to my friends back home,” she told Ingrid. “I look at my friends on Facebook, and they all seem so happy. They are all having these great college experiences, and I’m not.”
Just weeks after this conversation between the girls, Madison carefully picked out presents for her family, wrote a note, and took her own life, mere minutes after posting a serene picture of the snowfall on Instagram.
The University of Pennsylvania received criticism for not having an adequate number of mental health professionals on staff, and for not notifying students and staff that some of these deaths were suicides. Students were outraged that they were responsible for telling some staff how their friends and classmates died. One student, Alexandra Sternlicht, even went on to blast her school in the University paper writing:
“Not only is U Penn’s neglectful response to death an exception amongst peer institutions. It is also unhealthy. And even Penn knows it. According to Penn’s Behavioral Corporate Services, when the subject of death is ‘avoided, ignored or denied,’ the grieving process is compromised . . . Penn is compromising students’ mental health.” (phillymag.com)
Students were upset that more grief support was not available to them. They felt as though the school was trying to hide, or deny that suicide had become a major issue on their campus.
Madison’s former fifth grade school teacher, Edward Modica, started an online petition to create a law that would make colleges accountable for accurately tracking the number of suicides, and attempted suicides on their campuses each year (TheDP.com). This will help schools with developing effective suicide prevention techniques. “The Madison Holleran Law” also states that colleges must be mandated to provide certified suicide prevention personnel counselors to help potential victims address their needs and allay their fears about the rigorous demands of college life (MoveOn.org). The petition needs 10,000 signatures, and is well on its way with 8,697.
I met with Jeff Knapp, MSW, LMHP and LCSW, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s (UNO) Counseling Center to discuss the University’s mental health and counseling services. UNO’s Student Counseling center is made up of five Licensed Mental Health Practitioners (LMHP), two Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselors (LADC), as well as two graduate level students completing their studies in social work and counseling.
“Students come to our office with a variety of mental health needs. Some students come with a history of mental illness, and others have never had problems like these before,” said Knapp. “I would say anxiety is the most common issue we see among our freshman.”
A lot of these students are facing the same adjustment changes that Madison went through, including new academic challenges that they never had in high school.
“Many of these kids were straight “A” students in high school and didn’t really have to study much to earn those high scores,” Knapp explained. “College is much more demanding than high school, and it requires good study habits. This alone is a huge cause for anxiety, which can even lead to depression.”
The UNO Counseling Center specializes in short term counseling, which consists of about 8-10 sessions in length. If a student is in need of longer term care, the counselors can refer the individual over to the Community Counseling Clinic in Roskens Hall. UNO’s Community Counseling Clinic is free for students, and open to the public for a flat fee of $10 per visit. The community clinic is staffed with graduate level students who are working under the close supervision of the UNO Department of Counseling faculty.
The university also provides a suicide prevention training numerous times a year called, Campus Connect: A Suicide Prevention Training for Gatekeepers. Knapp, along with the other UNO counselors will meet with any class, club, or group that is looking to learn more about suicide prevention.
“We really just want to get kids comfortable asking the really tough question: Are you thinking about killing yourself?,” said Knapp.
Whether “The Madison Holleran Law,” passes, I think it is very clear that depression, anxiety, and suicide, can be the harsh outcomes of extreme stress put on young adults. While the heavy course loads and midnight cram sessions are likely not going anywhere, it is important to set realistic expectations for yourself or your college student. If the pressures get too great, take a break.
If you are experiencing extreme anxiety, feeling depressed, or are having thoughts about suicide, speak with a mental health professional immediately.
If you need are having a mental health crisis, and are in immediate danger to yourself or others, call 911.
About Jill Sauser, The Kim Foundation Project Coordinator
Jill graduated with a degree in Journalism and a minor in Speech Communication from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. During her time at UNO, she completed a two year PR practicum program where she worked with numerous nonprofit clients including the MS Society, The Archdiocese of Omaha, The Omaha Food Bank and YWCA. Jill joined The Kim Foundation as Project Coordinator in April 2014.