September is Suicide Prevention Month and today, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day. Like most of us, I too have been personally and closely effected by suicide. I am thankful every day that even during the most difficult times of my own mental health struggles, I have not been drawn into that darkness. However, many are not so lucky and struggle every day to see and feel the light.
College-age students are extremely susceptible, while simultaneously being really good at hiding their pain. I was reminded of my own hidden struggle recently as I went through the process of acquiring my transcripts from the undergraduate and graduate schools I attended. Once I received those papers, I had an unexpected, visceral reaction. It felt like I was transported back in time as I closely reviewed each semester.
My undergraduate years were rough. An intense and traumatic relationship that had started in high school followed me to college. Layered on top of that, my nuclear family was facing obstacles no one could have ever imagined.
I went from an honor roll student in high school to a “holdover pledge;” i.e. my grades were not high enough to be initiated into my sorority on time, so I had to pledge an additional semester in order to get my grades high enough to be inducted, achieving the absolute bare minimum.
In addition to my relational struggles, I showed up on campus completely ill-equipped to self manage and self monitor. While others could party all night and get up and go to class, I couldn’t figure out how to balance the two, and ultimately chose fun times far more often than class time. At first, this unfamiliar freedom to make my own choices felt new and exciting, but it escalated into a pattern of unhealthy decision making.
So why was I, someone who showed solid aptitude in high school, so challenged in college by its demands of independence and self-motivation, while others were able to successfully manage?
Anne Marie Albono, director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders says she is inundated with texts and phone calls from students who struggle with the transition to college life. “Elementary and high school is so much about right or wrong. You get the right answer or you don’t, there are lots of rules and lots of structure.” College life is, she says, “free-floating” which causes increased anxiety in students.
Lack of daily structure, ignoring any potential consequences for my choices (DENIAL!), relationship and family problems, as well as a lack of defined sense of self**, combined to form massive amounts of anxiety and bouts of depression for me. I never told anyone or sought out help while in college, yet the hidden struggles were there, building semester after semester.
I suffered alone or found ways to numb the feelings of fear, anxiety and depression. When feelings were numbed, life was not so overwhelming and scary. Was help available to me? I’m sure it was but shame and fear kept me from telling even my closest friends and the stigma of mental health problems kept me from pursuing campus resources.
I recently read the book, What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of An All American Teen by Kate Fagan – (summary link here: (http://womensrunning.competitor.com/2017/07/books/what-made-maddy-run-suicide_77052). The book is the true story of University of Pennsylvania cross country athlete, Maddy Holleran, who committed suicide by jumping from a parking garage at the beginning of her second semester of freshman year. Maddy was a smart, talented, beautiful young woman from a wonderful family and home town. Her back story reminds me a lot of my own town and my daughters’ friends: high performing kids and exemplary members of their school communities in academics, sports and volunteerism.
The flip side of this type of environment is that the often intense pressure and demands they (or others) put on themselves to be high achievers can be doubled-down on as they enter college, leading to significant mental health struggles. Sadly, that was Maddy Holleran’s story and she was unable to see any other way out of her personal pain.
One statistic I recently read is that the number of students seeking help at counseling centers on campuses rose by 30% between 2009 and 2016. Hand in hand with the increase in counseling services has been the slow but consistent growth in the number of students reporting feelings of depression, anxiety and social anxiety. “In the past, students may have suffered in silence, unaware of the help available to them or too afraid of the stigma to take advantage of it,” one researcher says.
Below are some additional findings from the reports:
- College students report feeling as if their mental health struggles are an extremely lonely experience – they feel disconnected and like they are the only ones having the problems they are experiencing.
- In a spring 2017 survey, 40% of college students said they had felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult for them to function; 61% of students said they had felt overwhelming anxiety. If the student was an athlete, the numbers were even higher.
- Peer comparison, shift of control from parent to student (think of the life change from helicopter parenting to complete autonomy), and a combination of academic (keeping grades high enough to maintain a scholarship, for example, or thinking about applying to law or med school) and financial concerns are listed as major causes of anxiety in students.
Citing the upward trend in college students increasing mental health support needs, the government has infused money into colleges and universities to increase resources available. Here are some examples of a few progressive university innovations:
- Virginia Tech opened satellite counseling clinics to reach students where they already spend their time, including above a campus Starbucks, in the athletic department and in graduate centers.
- Ohio State in 2016/2017 launched a counseling mobile app that allows students to make an appointment, access breathing exercises, listen to a playlist designed to cheer them up & contact the clinic in emergency
- Penn State allocated $700k in additional funding for counseling and psychological services in 2017 citing a dramatic increase in demand for care.
With this post, I hope to reach college-age students who may be wondering if they should reach out and ask for help – the answer is YES. Talk to someone. Know there are resources available to you at all times. You are not alone, even if it feels like it. Most of us have felt have you feel!
My hope is also that parents of college students will read this, listen to their intuition and pay attention to any red flags in their child’s behaviors, words or lack thereof (i.e. isolation, lack of communication, etc.). Most importantly, make sure your child is aware of all the resources available to them on campus. Just find it and text it to them, even if they act like you are crazy. Tell them to share the information with their friends.
Reducing the shame and stigma of mental health struggles by increasing communication on the topic will help in normalizing the experience of mental illness. Had I known this when I was in college, I would have saved myself from many years of private struggle, from college years into adulthood. Increased awareness of behavioral red flags and pushing through what feel like awkward and difficult conversations can save lives.
Please leave a comment and/or share this to reach as many people as possible today.
CALL: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) is a 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hotline available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255
World Suicide Prevention Day: https://iasp.info/wspd2018/
**Definition of Sense of Self. … In psychology, the sense of self is defined as the way a person thinks about and views his or her traits, beliefs, and purpose within the world. It’s a truly dynamic and complicated concept because it covers both the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ self.