Mental Illness in College Students Rises

Pressure to Succeed and Cultural Trends May Be To Blame


Published: April 17, 2008

More than ever before, college students are being diagnosed with and treated for mental illnesses, and the number of students who are prescribed psychiatric drugs has surged.  The American Psychological Association reports that the number of students who sought help for depression doubled between 1990 and 2003.  Even more alarming, according to the organization Mental Health America, suicide is the second leading cause of death in college-age students.  In light of these trends, the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech tragedy begs the question: how are these national developments reflected at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC)?

“There has been an increase in the number of students coming to CPS [FCLC’s Counseling & Psychological Services center] …every year for the last five years,” said Sarah Landew, a staff psychologist in CPS.  Landew also acknowledged that this is a “general trend” in college counseling centers across the country.  “It is mostly due to the destigmatization of mental health and the outreach efforts that are being made to reach students,” Landew stated.

Landew said she also attributes the increase in students seeking psychiatric help in college to the success of recent innovations in psychology and psychopharmacology, which enable students with “significant histories of mental illness” to live normal lives, attend college and perform successfully.  “There are more students who are coming to universities with a history of previous therapy and/or mental illness—therefore, they are seeking out more services [once they get to college],” she said.

Thomas Caffrey, a New York City psychologist who treats college-age individuals, said he believes that the increase in college students who seek help for mental health issues is partially attributable to “a greater expectation of a college student” in recent years.  “There is a greater cost [for college], and pressure to earn, not just learn.  There wasn’t that pressure when I was in college.  Now, [college students] have pressure to go out and earn right away.”  Caffrey said he believes that this amplified level of stress has led to an increase in the number of college students with mental health issues—and, hence, a greater need for therapy or psychiatric drugs.

“College is this eye-opening experience to the adult world, and people find different ways of dealing with that,” said Megan*, FCLC ’10.  “Many people become overwhelmed with being perfect at school and develop anxiety or depression.” Megan, who takes Lexapro, an anti-depressant medication, said that she has been depressed and also experienced “severe anxiety issues” earlier this year.  “Suicide, at this age, is on a lot of people’s minds,” she said.

Amelio D’Onofrio, director of the FCLC psychological services institute, said that he has seen a recent increase in the number of college students who engage in self-destructive behavior, such as cutting, substance abuse and eating disorders.  D’Onofrio said that instances of these issues have “increased dramatically and are more in the spotlight at the counseling center now.”

D’Onofrio said that he feels many students are experiencing “an increased sense of pressure to succeed, even before high school…they look to soothe themselves in a number of ways. This can contribute to…mental illness,” which can lead to self-destructive behavior, he stated.

Also, D’Onofrio said he feels that “certain socio-cultural trends” are contributing to increased mental health issues in college-age individuals.  Considering that half of all American marriages end in divorce, there is the “breakup of more traditional family settings,” he stated. “Children are left to their own devices…to solve their problems.  There is a lack of belonging and support and closeness…students don’t know how to handle the pain they experience.”

These heightened stress factors increase the pressure of what has always been a complicated time: the start of college. A 2008 American Psychological Association press release quotes David Kahn of New York Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University Medical Center:  “College can be a difficult transition with new independence, responsibilities and expectations arriving just as a student’s previous support system of family and friends are often not readily available.  To add to the problem, the late teen years are often when biologically-based illnesses, such as depression and bipolar disorder, begin to manifest themselves.”

Cally Speed, FCLC ’08, said that she sought help at CPS in order to deal with the death of a friend. “The reason I attended therapy was not school-related,” she said, “but I do believe that, for many [students], [school] could be the reason [for seeking therapy]. There is definitely a lot of pressure on students, and that, mixed with being more independent than ever before [at college], could make students feel very isolated and alone.”

D’Onofrio said he attributes the rise of college-age individuals who take psychiatric medications to a combination of less judicious prescribing on the part of psychiatrists and a society that is more accepting of psychiatry.

“It is a national trend,” said D’Onofrio.  “[Drugs] are more widely accepted…it tends to be a shortcut to dealing with problems.  Medication does help people manage their lives, and for many people, it is necessary.  But medications alone do not resolve our problems or address the reasons why we may be depressed.  A combination of medication and psychotherapy is most helpful.”

Speed said, “I think that people are more comfortable talking about issues than they used to be. Our generation seems to be one that turns toward medication more quickly than in the past. Psychiatric medications are advertised on TV now, so I assume that people are just more open to the whole idea.”

Natalie Mauro, FCLC ’08, has sought counseling at both the Rose Hill and Lincoln Center campuses and said that she does not take psychiatric medication. “I do know a lot of students…who are in therapy, have been in therapy or are on some kind of psychiatric medication for anything from anxiety to depression. I feel that it’s really common nowadays.”

Mental illnesses in college students may be a recent epidemic, but one thing hasn’t changed, according to Caffrey—college-age individuals’ lack of willingness to seek help. “The [college-age individuals] that I have treated, in my experience, have not been that eager for treatment at all.  They are not ready to reflect about their lives… [they don’t have] much initiative to seek help on their own.  People begin to seek therapy, generally, at about 28 years old—in college, you are not yet psychologically an adult, even though you are treated like one.”

Megan said, “I know about 10 friends who seek therapy, and only a few on [psychiatric] medication. I think more of my friends should seek therapy, to be honest.”