Clusters of student suicides at Tulane, William & Mary, MIT and other universities this past year have launched a nationwide debate about the mental health of young people around the country and what colleges, parents and students themselves can do about it.
Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric spoke to experts and two mothers personally affected by suicide to tackle the critical issue in a wide-ranging panel discussion.
College students are reporting that they’re more depressed and anxious than ever before and are pouring into overwhelmed college counseling centers for help, often waiting weeks for appointments. Universities are attempting to respond but haven’t kept up with the crisis.
“We know that colleges have actually increased their staffing and increased their budgets in many, many cases,” said Dr. Victor Schwartz, the medical director for the JED Foundation and the former medical director of counseling services at New York University. “It hasn’t kept up with the demand. As much as they seem to increase, students are coming in. There does seem to be a very, very large need.”
It’s unclear what’s driving the dramatic decrease in emotional health on campus. It’s possible more students now feel comfortable seeking help in the first place, instead of bottling up their problems. Dr. Allison Baker, a child psychiatrist with the Child Mind Institute, also pointed out that more young people are receiving mental health treatment as children, which allows them to go to college in the first place. But many college counseling centers are ill-equipped to deal with these students’ more complicated mental health issues.
“Colleges are slammed, and services are lacking,” she said.
But there’s also clearly a societal and cultural element at play. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, author of “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania,” said that college administrators overwhelmingly describe today’s students as “fragile.” They’re seeing less resilience and adaptability in students today than even those from a decade earlier. Some blame over-involved parenting styles that put intense pressure on kids to succeed.
“There’s an intense economic anxiety… that filters from parents to kids and has a whole generation of kids worried about what their future is going to hold,” Bruni said. “And then you have this kind of parenting and this kind of atmosphere that often exists in certain communities right now where kids are following this very exacting script through high school that their parents have written for them. And then they get to college and they’re on their own in a very real way for the first time. And the script isn’t there for them.”
Some college counseling centers have started mandating that students take “resilience workshops” before they access the overburdened counselors in the first place, Yahoo News National Affairs Reporter Liz Goodwin said. The workshops teach them basic coping skills and how to “self soothe” after an ordinary setback such as a bad grade.
Schwartz highlighted the role of social media, which has been a part of campus life for a decade now but continues to grow. The technology is meant to connect people, but it might not actually increase feelings of closeness and intimacy that can help a young person survive a crisis. “There’s data that, in fact, students feel less connected to their friends than they did 10 and 20 years ago,” Schwartz said.
Margaret Kramer, a graduating senior at the University of South Carolina, who has been a mental health advocate on her campus, said that social media creates tremendous pressure to present oneself as perfect.
“We’re constantly online, constantly having to create several personas for ourselves within our classroom, within our professional life, if we have that as a student,” she told Couric via Skype. “There’s a perfection expected. I’ve definitely been affected by that.”
Couric also spoke to two grieving parents of bright and promising college students who took their own lives after battling mental illness.
Sue Cimbricz, the mother of Sam Freeling, who died by suicide as a senior at the University of Rochester less than two years ago, told Couric that something changed in her son, suddenly, and that she still doesn’t know what happened.
“He said he didn’t have the same feelings of joy and happiness that he had before,” she said.
Though Freeling was in treatment, Cimbricz thinks the social stigma around mental illness may have made the emerging disease even harder for her son to deal with. He tried to hide his pain. “I think to a large degree a lot has to do with the social stigma attached with this and that feeling of isolation,” Cimbricz said.
Donna Satow, who founded the JED Foundation to educate people about suicide after her son took his own life in 1998, agreed that stigma is still an issue but that it’s slowly getting better. She hopes to spread the message that suicide is preventable and that mental illness is treatable, just like other diseases.
“We just felt that with the people we knew and the knowledge we had, we should try with all of our might to combat this,” Satow said. “It is preventable if young people can get the right help. The help is there.”