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Students' mental health needs are increasing

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The college years have long been portrayed in fiction and film as the best years of a young person's life, a time for frolic, freedom, and philosophy. But the results of the American College Health Association's 2017 Health Assessment Survey offers a starkly different picture of student life on US campuses. And many Rochester-area higher education institutions, like colleges and universities across the country, are taking the survey's results seriously.

According to the Health Assessment Survey's sampling of 26,000 undergraduates from across the country, in the prior year more than 53 percent of students said they "felt things were hopeless," more than 86 percent said they "felt overwhelmed" by all they had to do, 61 percent felt "overwhelming anxiety," 40 percent said they "felt so depressed that it was difficult to function," and nearly 13 percent said they "seriously considered suicide."

What alarms many college mental health professionals most is the trendline, says Susan Quinn, Nazareth's director of health and counseling. For instance, in the 1985 version of the survey, only 18 percent of students nationwide said they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do. In 2010, it was 29 percent, and by 2017, it jumped to more than 86 percent.

Quinn says she's seen the results of the survey reflected in a growing demand for services at Nazareth, so much so that the college is hiring two more licensed counselors so there'll be a staff of five by the fall. The hope is to reduce the wait time for students seeking services, from as long as three weeks to less than a week.

"We're all wondering and trying to understand what's changed and how do we respond?" Quinn says.

The survey, which is designed to take periodic snapshots of college students' physical and mental health, doesn't say what's causing the changes in their wellness. But local mental health professionals like Quinn have made their own observations about what's happening.

The biggest change Quinn notices is that students are spending many hours every day on social media. David Reetz, director of counseling and psychological services at Rochester Institute of Technology, agrees; and he says he's seen a significant drop in social interaction among younger students.

"Fewer have a driver's license and fewer are engaging with friends in outside activities," Reetz says. "Those more complex social skills are delayed, so when they're thrown into a new environment it creates anxiety."

Withdrawal is a common coping mechanism in these situations, he says.

"But withdrawal leads to depression," he says. "When we're more connected to people, we're better able to manage anxiety. There are many good things that come with screen time. What's missing, though, is the ability to sit with another human being. What's happening instead is pseudo-connection, not friendship."  

Laura Swanson, staff counselor at SUNY Geneseo, says there's another component to social media that's harmful to some students. Many of these postings present a perfect, one-dimensional view of a person's life. When students compare what's happening in their lives to these "curated" images, it can be depressing, she says.

"There's a divide between real life and social media," Swanson says.

While the current crop of college students are dealing with the trauma of school shootings and sexual assaults, the pressure in American society has become extreme, according to a 2019 New York Times article.

"College students have experienced financial burden on a different scale than many of their predecessors," according to the Times article. "They grew up during the Great Recession and have seen family members lose jobs and homes. They have great uncertainty about their career prospects."

Olivia Binda, a senior year at SUNY Geneseo, says the pressure is real. She wants to go on to law school, but she doesn't have the money, which is making her extremely anxious, she says. And many of her friends feel this anxiety, too.

"I have a friend who has gone on 16 interviews and hasn't heard back from any of them," Binda says. "As a student who is graduating in a month or so with no prospects, what's he going to do?"

Local colleges are providing a mix of services and programs to help their students. Most offer some form of short-term counseling to students, and they're training faculty, staff, and student peer groups to recognize the symptoms of mental health disorders. For instance, they're trained to look for students who are missing classes, falling asleep in class, appear to be abusing drugs or alcohol, or show sudden changes in behavior, such as withdrawal and self-isolation.  

Nazareth will be launching a program called RIO – Recognition, Insight, and Openness – which is largely aimed at creating a campus culture of awareness about mental health. Counselors will be providing three sessions for developing coping skills that will be offered at different times weekly. And they're also offering group counseling for students who want more ongoing support. If intensive therapy is needed or personal safety is a concern, students are referred to the appropriate provider.  

Rather than treating students' mental health issues only as they surface, at the University of Rochester there's a growing emphasis on prevention. Amy Nadelen, a counselor at the University of Rochester, drew on her own experience with handling the anxiety that comes with always wanting to do more, she says. Nadelen had already begun using meditation as a way of calming herself and she saw how it might benefit students, too.

"Our culture here is always do our best, and do it better," she says. "Many of our students were stars in their hometown high schools, but they come here and now they're just one of many in the mix. They've never experienced not being the best. They've never experienced failure. That's a lot for some students."

Nadelen coordinated with other faculty at the college and the Medical Center to launch the university-wide Mindfulness and Meditation practice in the fall of 2018.

"It's not just about teaching meditation, but how do we create and change our culture to be a more mindful institution," she says.

There are many different components to the concept of mindfulness, but it's essentially about learning how to focus your attention by quieting the inner chatter.

Nadelen started some classes, particularly those before exams, by asking students to take a few minutes to sit quietly and just focus on breathing. The practice is completely voluntary, but she says the concept has caught on across the university and is supported through a long-term grant.

"This is just another tool in the tool box," she says. "It's ok to stop and take a breath. It's ok to be in the moment instead of ruminating between the past and the present and the future."