The Complexities of Depression

Emotional wellness is a hot topic on high school and college campuses across the country. The rise of suicide among high school and college students is alarming.
The profile for some at risk ...

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Emotional wellness is a hot topic on high school and college campuses across the country. The rise of suicide among high school and college students is alarming.

The profile for some at risk because of depression and other emotional issues has many different faces. The stress and pressure that the average high school and college student has to face on a daily basis is much more intense than most of us adults realize.

The greater adult community continues to live in denial and only feeds this escalating concern. As you are reading this column, unbeknownst to many of you, each of you know someone who is at risk. A young adult who wears the plastic smile, does all the right things, says all the right things, but because of peer pressure, family pressure and school pressure, they are like a living time bomb ready to go off.

As parents sending their children off to college, we worry about their grades, their homesickness and their partying. For most of us, we don't worry about mental illness. More than a thousand college students commit suicide each year. What is even more troubling is that there is an even larger group of college students who are suffering and could be at risk at any given time.

In 2003 a survey conducted by the American College of Health Association indicated that more than forty percent of college students reported feeling "so depressed that it was difficult to function," at least once during the school year. Thirty percent expressed that they were suffering from anxiety and various levels of depression.

There is much debate and conversation about why these numbers are rising at such an alarming rate among our college students. However, what is even more distressing is that many college campuses are ill equipped to handle this growing concern.

What are college communities doing? Unfortunately, many are looking for "rock solid, emotionally fit students." Whatever that means. However, they are looking at students more closely and red flagging students with identified emotional issues.

The complexity of depression and other mental health issues is that they are oftentimes masked by other behaviors. We still stigmatize mental health concerns. Too many students who are in distress or possibly at risk are afraid to come forward. Counseling and the possibility of taking medication are for some akin to being a leper.

These serious mental health issues go un-addressed. Many high school and college students who, on paper, are "great kids" begin drinking excessively and/or smoking pot. They engage in these behaviors not to be cool, but rather to take the edge off of all the stress in their lives. In short, it becomes a form of medication.

When faced with these behaviors, too many parents merely dismiss them as being part of the "growing up" phase, a rite of passage into adulthood. For some that is correct. However, I must admit for a growing number of college coeds that is not the story.

Every semester I hear countless college students talk about their stress and feeling ill equipped to manage. When the suggestion of counseling comes up, there are a million excuses for why not. They range from "my parents will never pay for it" to "I don't want to be labeled" to being "frightened to death."

Last year at NYU, four students fell to their deaths from buildings on campus. According to school officials, there was nothing overt to identify that these students were struggling. The university took a very proactive stance after these unfortunate tragedies. They created a twenty-four hour "Wellness" hotline. What is unique about this hotline is that if a student is not responding on the phone, a trained counselor will be dispatched or the campus police will be called and sent to the student's residence.

The university is also asking incoming students about special needs they might have. Whether or not a student is taking medication or is in counseling. The university's therapists now make weekly trips to residence halls for one on one appointments.

Where NYU's new approach is admirable, too many colleges and universities have very weak and often understaffed counseling centers. Mental health has never been a priority concern among most colleges and universities. It is not a priority concern in most of our high schools and elementary schools. This is evidenced by the growing number of school districts cutting back on student support services. Effective, competent mental health providers are expensive.

As your son or daughter goes away to school for the first time, you should be concerned with what kind of mental health services are available on campus. How accessible are they? How trained are these professionals? What about the campus RA's and RO's? What kind of training do they have? Does the college and/or university have a tracking system for those students who have excessive absences? For many freshmen, absenteeism is a reflection of immaturity and too much partying. But for a growing number of students who silently get lost in the system, it is depression.

PJ went off to an excellent SUNY school last year. He was psyched. He could not stop talking about how proud he was of getting into such an excellent SUNY school, especially since he was such a marginal high school student due to his lack of motivation. He went to Suffolk for two years and graduated with a 3.9 GPA.

He arrived at Binghamton ill prepared to deal with the competitiveness and the social pressure. He became immensely depressed, masking it with excessive consumption of alcohol and cutting. He got so far behind in his work that he stopped going to class and failed out.

Failing out was so demoralizing that he talked of suicide and got lost for days on a dangerous drinking binge. Thanks to his friends' intervention, he did not hurt himself. Today he is seeing a counselor and is more empowered to deal with the intense stresses of living.

It is very hard being a young person today. They deal with more stress in a given moment then many of us who are twice their age will deal with in a lifetime. We have failed in preparing our children to deal with the cutthroat world we live in.

Don't wait until your son or daughter is a senior in high school to be concerned about their mental health. Be attentive now!