College Students Are Feeling More Anxious and Depressed – How Can We Do Better?
When I was a sophomore in college, two of my peers committed suicide in the same school year. These were students who shared mutual friends, joined in for pick-up basketball games in the gym, and attended the same parties and events on campus. For me, this marked a moment in life when suicide was close to home. I realized that I had no idea where on campus I could talk about these losses or process the loss associated with leaving home.
Now as a therapist, I meet with more and more college students experiencing symptoms related to depression and anxiety. From those sessions, I have gathered underlying themes and developed five ways you can help yourself, friends, or children who are struggling at college.
Sharing stories of resilience
The Time article, Record Numbers of College Students are Seeking Treatment for Depression and Anxiety – But School Can’t Keep Up, reports that mental health needs have come to the forefront of college campuses at a record setting pace.
In my experience, one factor behind this increase is the lack of resiliency stories shared in families. In his book The Neurobiology of “We”, Daniel Siegel shares that how parents talk about their stressors impacts their children. What are the stories of resilience? It’s important to share the sufferings of the past, it’s also essential to impart the strength to survive and overcome it. When we have stories in our family history of resilience, we can call up these stories in our moments of adversity to help us through tough times. Protecting our kids from stories of suffering may also cause them to miss out on stories of resilience.
Learning healthy ways to express emotion
In my sessions, I noticed a large number of students suppress their feelings. In his book Human BE—ing, William Pietsch likens suppressing emotions to placing your hand on the output of a water hose. If the water is unable to come out the way it was intended to, it will burst out in other ways.
More often than not, my college students exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression have learned that expressing emotion can either lead to a potentially relationship-ending conflict or they feel like a burden for sharing how they feel. If you are able to find a friend or family member that can listen without judgment, it reinforces that your feelings are important and that you will not be left alone for sharing your pain. Being a non-judgmental listener is an important way to support someone who is struggling, help them to feel safe, and learn how to healthily express what they’re feeling.
Cultivating self-worth from within
The anxiety and depression symptoms probably started before coming to college. Many of my college students have an inner critic that wants to motivate them, but instead leaves them deflated. In such cases, I noticed that their self-worth is based upon external factors. For example, receiving a rejection letter or breaking up with a high school sweetheart can become earth-shattering events that destroy a young person’s self-esteem.
In his book, The Self-Esteem Workbook, Glenn Schiraldi suggests that “it is wise to separate uncomfortable feelings arising from disappointment, illness, fatigue, chemical fluctuations, anger, anxiety, and the like from feeling bad about the core self.”
Depression symptoms often ensue when we move from “this is horrible” to “I am horrible.” In my experience, whenever there is isolation, there is shame. Our self-worth often rises and falls with circumstances.
Saying affirmations that speak to your goodness will help rebuild self-esteem from the inside out. Try repeating one of these affirmations five times while you are getting ready in the morning. This type of practice can actually re-wire your brain and reinforce positive thought patterns.
- I deserve to be happy and successful
- I have the power to change myself
- I can forgive and understand others and their motives
- I can make my own choices and decisions
- I am free to choose to live as I wish and to give priority to my desires
- I can choose happiness whenever I wish no matter what my circumstances
- I am flexible and open to change in every aspect of my life
- I act with confidence having a general plan and accept plans are open to alteration
- It is enough to have done my best
- I deserve to be loved
Learning how to fish
Some of my clients feel unprepared for the challenges they face in college. As I call upon the old adage around fishing, some have shared that their parents did things for them, but taught very little.
Most parents want their children to have a better life than they did. However, it is healthy and beneficial for the child to struggle. If a child struggles with a parent around, a parent can help the child as they struggles. It is unhealthy to remove struggle completely. Students that have been protected from struggle find it difficult to cope with it when it happens away from home.
By the time students are already at college, what’s done is done. Now, they’ll have to learn how to try, fail, and try again. Friends and family can show support by offering encouragement instead of offering to take care of things on their behalf.
Fulfilling your dreams
Many students have parents that survived the recession, and they may put pressure on their children to follow a certain career path for stability. Unfortunately, the pressure can feel like a lack of support or acknowledgment of the dream the student might have for themselves. When the student lives in a world shrouded with pressure to be someone that minimizes their gifts and abilities in favor of security, motivation slowly diminishes as they forecast the misery of the next 30 years.
Hopefully, colleges are realizing the great need for mental health services on their campuses and taking the steps to increase access to their resources. Students who are struggling with anxiety and depression may be able to find discounted therapy services through local educational institutions.
Staff Therapist Ryan McMillian, MDiv, MFT is skilled at guiding clients through transitions and personal losses including: unfavorable diagnosis, loss of job, estranged relationships, and death. Ryan is also trained in Emotionally-Focused Therapy (EFT).