Mental Health & College Students: The Truth

Students are famed for their party-lifestyle – being late to class, not completing assignments or keeping up with readings are the norm for the occasional week of school. But when someone is too depressed to get out of bed, too anxious to attend class or too distracted to concentrate, things can get out of control fast as the work piles up and grades slip.

Unfortunately, these types of problems appear to be on the rise; a survey from the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) shows that universities and colleges have seen a significant increase in students seeking services for anxiety disorders. A report released by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shows that the suicide rate among teen girls and young women has tripled in the past 25 years. This increase is occurring despite an overall drop in suicide rates across the United States. NIH reports that suicide is now the third leading cause of death among young Americans.

Additionally, the commencement of college occurs around the time that things like anxiety and depression start to rear their heads in young adults – around 18 to 20 years old – adding stress, pressure and unfamiliar surroundings into the mix. In fact, according to the NIH, 75 percent of all individuals suffering from an anxiety disorder will experience symptoms before age 22, as cited in the ADAA Report.

Advances in technology can help us better understand mental health.

A college student in New York, Adam*, has suffered with these kinds of problems. His difficulties culminated in his junior year of college. “When I woke up in the morning I remember I always had difficulty getting out of bed because that meant I had to get out and face the world. I felt like I had nothing to look forward to … like it was impossible to be happy.”

After being prescribed anti-depressants, Adam talked about the difficulty he felt adjusting. “I was apprehensive about it; I didn’t want to be seen as one of those people who rely on medication,” he says. Stigma is one of the most persisting elements in terms of mental health, and can affect college students and young adults in particular who still have a need to be accepted by peers. Specifically, according to a 2006 study, students cited shame as the number one reason they wouldn’t seek help. Even more significantly, only 23 percent were open to sharing that kind of information with friends.

The ever-raging and torrid debate over medication doesn’t add much clarity to the situation. “I think it’s helped,” comments Adam, “but it could just be a placebo effect.”  It is common knowledge that anti-depressants and other psychiatric medications can cause multiple unwanted side effects – consistently raising the question of “is it worth it?” According to Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) researcher Bruno Van Swinderen, who deals exclusively in ADHD research, medication might not be the only answer.

“What we see more and more is that people don’t want to put their kids on drugs, if there is other ways of doing the same thing. Something I’m excited about is using sleep as therapy. We all engage in therapy every night when we sleep, it does something really good for our brains. So I think that needs to be explored further rather than just coming up with a new type of drug.”

Natasha Matthews, a research fellow also at the Queensland Brain Institute, studying ADHD in children and schizophrenia in adults, agrees with Dr. Van Swinderen. “There’s definitely this idea that we are over-medicating our kids, and that families want something a little more nuanced that’s not as scary as putting their child on drugs.” (Side note: in 2010, there were 24.2 million existing prescriptions for ADHD medications – according to data provided by IMS Health).

See the full interview with researchers Dr. Van Swinderen and Natasha Matthews:

There is an argument that today there too much pressure is placed on young adults going into University. The pressure to decide what graduate schools to apply for, maintaining grades and having a scrap of social life can be too much for the still developing brain. (According to New Scientist, the brain at age 20 is only in its third stage of development – out of a full five.) With university degrees becoming more and more ubiquitous, there is a growing need to separate oneself from the pack by becoming involved with a wide range of extra-curricular activities.

One of the labs at the QBI.

However, in some cases, being at university and away from stressors at home can actually help the situation. Adam remarked that he was happy to be away from home, so that he could distract himself from his feelings by spending time with his friends and keeping busy with work. “It sounds kind of counter-intuitive,” he says. “But I feel like when I’m at home I’m just doing nothing … but here at school it’s different, and busier, and [I like] working on things that I feel are making a difference in my life, things that I feel are important.”

In spite of this, students can still find it difficult to keep up with the tough workload of tertiary level education. “I procrastinated things a lot, it seemed like I didn’t have a lot of ambition to start things, especially like big papers and projects.” Adam says. “Everything I did I had to rush to do it because I waited till the last second,” He adds. “I didn’t feel like going to class… one thing I did was sleep a lot because I felt like when I was asleep I didn’t have to deal with anything.”

Many students will fall prey to drinking, drug-taking or engaging in risky behaviour when they approach a breaking point. This can often lead to more problems like addiction or isolation. “Drinking actually seemed to make [my mood] worse.” Adam reveals.  “It got a lot better when I was with some of my friends, so I tried to stop being so alone all the time, which is a bad habit of mine. I felt like I was happier with people.”

Dr. Van Swinderen and Miss Matthews both feel that there is still much to be done in order to better understand mental health. “One of the biggest advantages is just advancements in technology. Advancements in genetics and FMRI – taking pictures of the brain – mean that we can start combining these things to answer the really big questions,” says Miss Matthews. Dr. Van Swinderen adds: “the [objective of the QBI] is not only to cure disease – that’s one of the objectives – but the overall purpose is larger than that. It’s to understand how the brain – how any brain, be it a fly brain, a human brain – works, and to find answers from there.”

*Name has been changed.

Hear the full interview with Adam here:


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