Mental health hits college students hard

College students at American University talk about their mental health challenges.

Credit: Sarah Gibson
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One of the biggest challenges some college students face is mental illness.

College students are in a psychologically vulnerable time in their lives, according to Shatina Williams, assistant director of the American University Counseling Center.

College can also be a foreign environment for students, which is another stress factor that affects mental health, Williams said.

“What we know is that the ages of 18 to 24 are when many mental health concerns begin to appear,” Williams wrote in an email. What is unique to college students versus other young adults in the same age bracket is the abrupt shift in their environments and social networks. Students are moving to a new city with no friends or social support and are forced to learn a set of systems and rules, she said.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 1 in 5 college students have a diagnosable mental illness, and 75 percent of mental illnesses start before age 24, making college students a critical demographic for mental health assistance.

At AU, the counseling center helps students get help with mental health issues or get referred to an off-campus clinic, depending on their needs. Williams said this benefit of free and confidential counseling for students is not available at every university.

Even though different colleges address mental health differently, Williams said the trends of mental health among college students are relatively consistent.

“Though the compositional triggers for mental health concerns may differ, the trends we see in the mental health and well-being of college are consistent across the country,” Williams said.

Factors like AU’s status as a private university and its large population of international students affect the rates of mental health in the community. Williams said approximately 10 percent of all AU students seek help from the counseling center every year.

Senior Lindsy Crutchfield is one of those students. She said the intense culture at AU is detrimental to the mental health of college students.

“I felt like I had to figure it out on my own. I’m curious how many AU students are in the same boat as I am.”

Crutchfield, who recently started medication for her depression and anxiety, said it was difficult to go public about her diagnoses last year. She said she felt forced to pretend she was fine so that she could appear to blend in with everyone else.

“Everyone is so competitive,” Crutchfield said. “I think there is an increase overall with college students that are realizing they have mental health issues due to the stress of college.”

Crutchfield said she feels AU does not handle student mental health well. She said students are under a lot of pressure to get internships and do well in school and appear well-balanced, which can trigger too much competition and eventually lead to mental health problems.

“I think it’s great that we have so many services on campus, but I don’t think enough people are using them,” Crutchfield said. “I felt like I had to figure it out on my own. I’m curious how many AU students are in the same boat as I am.”

Even for students that are not on medication for mental health, college can be stressful and difficult to manage, especially when it’s hard to talk about.

“It stresses you out. It’s a change, it’s a transition and it has a toll on people.”

Freshman Harrison Eichelberger said a lot of people don’t pay enough attention to mental health among college students.

“College is a lot,” Eichelberger said. “It stresses you out. It’s a change, it’s a transition and it has a toll on people.”

A lot of pressure for college students comes from the workload students face, said Sophomore Luke Pellegrino.

“I think that a lot of people kind of put their own mental health on the back burner in pursuit of grades,” Pellegrino said. “We have a lot on our plates, and it’s not always easy to deal with that.”

Junior Justin Neely commutes 45 minutes to school. As a result, he sacrifices sleep in exchange for completing his work on time, which can lead to problems and a dangerous cycle of compromise for his own mental and physical health.

“I think that a lot of people kind of put their own mental health on the back-burner in pursuit of grades.”

“We have too many assignments, a lot of stress, and then there’s also the fact that because of our social lives and always being around people, so there’s a lot of sleep deprivation.”

Senior Sharon Garcha said she thinks mental health is important because it is necessary for students to succeed in their classes.

“It should always be a priority,” Garcha said of mental health. Garcha has seen the effects of mental health issues among her friends, and it can be difficult to watch people struggle with their own mental health.

“It [mental health] should always be a priority.”

Freshman Jessica Chen said she sees the counseling center every week to control the stress she feels at college. She said it is “extremely helpful” for her to talk to someone at the center.

“I think it’s especially important because we are in a new environment and we need to start looking out for ourselves,” Chen said of visiting the counseling center. “There’s someone who listens, and they can’t tell anyone else, so you feel everything is safer.”

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