Mental Illness Increases on College Campuses

The number of students enrolled at the University of Minnesota who experience significant mental illness seems to be increasing, according to Dr. Gary Christenson, the Director of the Mental Health Clinic at the University’s Boynton Health Service. He provided the information as part of an article written by Charlene Dick and published in the September 8th edition of The Minnesota Daily, the independent student-produced newspaper originating from the U’s Twin Cities campus. The article states that the number of students registered for the 2003-2004 school year who experience a psychiatric disability is up 22% over 1998-1999. Does that mean people get mental illness by going to college?!? Although college does cause some to feel a lot of stress and anxiety, the answer is “NO! College does not cause mental illness!”

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), with the support of Abbott Laboratories, hopes to debunk this and other myths about mental illness during Mental Illness Awareness Week. The Week, which began October 3, will be marked by various activities held throughout the country. According to the NAMI website, “This year’s theme, ‘Unity through Diversity’, reflects the hope and real possibility of reclaimed lives in all communities across the country and encapsulates the true spirit and essence of NAMI while reflecting all forms of difference.”

What is mental illness anyway? How can someone tell if they have one? NAMI considers mental illness to include such things as bipolar, major depressive, obsessive-compulsive, panic and anxiety, attention deficit/hyperactivity, and other severe and persistent disorders that affect the brain. The symptoms of such disorders vary widely, from tiredness, loss of interest, difficulty concentrating, long-lasting sadness, extreme pessimism, increased hostility, paranoia, to the most extreme: suicide.

Because these illnesses are generally biologically-based brain disorders, they are nearly impossible to detect when looking at someone; they’re often considered “invisible” or “hidden” disabilities. They affect people of any age, race, religion, or income. They are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character, lack of intelligence, or poor upbringing. Furthermore, they cannot be overcome through “willpower”. Still, mental illnesses are treatable! Most people with mental illness can control their symptoms through the use of medication, just like other disorders such as diabetes. Some people may also use supportive counseling, self-help groups, assistance with housing, vocational rehabilitation, income assistance, and other community services in order to achieve their highest level of recovery. But until a person is diagnosed and receives treatment, these illnesses can profoundly disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, moods, ability to relate to others, and capacity for coping with the demands of life, such as college.

So, if college does not cause mental illness, why is the number of people who are attending college and experiencing such illnesses increasing? NAMI points out that depression and other major illnesses first become apparent during a person’s college years. Students must contend with new surroundings, people, classes, and other various stresses. The pressures of college life, combined with biological factors, have made mental illness on college campuses an increasingly common concern. An estimated 27% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have a diagnosable mental illness. Every year thousands of college students struggle alone with mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and bipolar disorder.

Because awareness of mental illnesses has increased in recent years, more people have been diagnosed and treated, which has allowed them to more effectively deal with their symptoms and lead a more active life — including going to college. The following are ways those experiencing mental illness can make the most of educational experiences:

 learn about symptoms, treatments, and general coping strategies

 become acquainted with mental health resources on campus

 practice time management and set limits — don’t try to do too much

 try various learning styles (e.g., hearing, watching, reading, and doing) to find the one, or combination, that works best for you

Personally, I experience the effects of general anxiety and major depression. During my high school and undergraduate years, I didn’t realize I had a mental illness, let alone ever think I would have one! I occasionally experienced class and test anxiety, then one day, moments before entering a morning class, a major panic attack (i.e., chest pain, vomiting, hot and cold sweats), I wanted answers. My doctor asked if I thought I experienced anxiety or depression. I laughed and said, “Of course not!” I demanded a thorough physical checkup and received treatment for the physical ailments my doctor discovered. However, I still experienced the same symptoms afterward. I began feeling tired all the time. My doctor again asked the question: “Do you think you are depressed or anxious?” I again answered, “No way!” This time I underwent a sleep study and used a sleep aid, but still the symptoms remained. Eventually, a time came where I had many changes occur all at once, and over four months I fell apart. I spent one week in the hospital, followed by four weeks of intensive classes covering mental illness and recovery. I realized my “breakdown” was related to all the changes in my life, and I moved on. Three years later, I experienced another group of changes and another week in the hospital. The bottom line: mental illness can happen to anyone, even you: be open to its possibility.

Early identification and treatment is vitally important. Getting treatment as soon as possible will result in an easier and shorter recovery, and it will protect you from further harm related to the illness. If you think that you or someone you know has symptoms of mental illness, please see your campus’s counseling center, health center, disability services office or doctor.

“NAMI on campus” provides resources and community at www.nami.org