College depression growing

BY BEN MARKS | FEBRUARY 16, 2015 5:00 AM

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University of Iowa sophomore Brenna Oates, the vice president of the campus chapter of Active Minds — a national nonprofit organization that raises awareness of mental health — also has dysthymia, a mild form of chronic depression, and generalized anxiety disorder.

“I know everyone is busy and has days where they feel overwhelmed,” she said. “But that’s constant for me. It feels like it’s going to overpower me, and I have no control over anything anymore.”

While depression can bring feelings of isolation, Oates is not alone.

A recent national study showed an increasing number of college students report feelings of depression, anxiety, and lower emotional well-being.

A survey of college freshmen conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California found 9.5 percent of respondents reported feeling “frequently” depressed, a significant increase from the 6.1 percent reported in 2009.

In addition, the number of students who reported feeling “overwhelmed by all they had to do” increased from 27.1 percent to 34.6 percent.

An increase in the average number of UI students referred to the hospital for suicidal behavior may also be a part of the national trend.

Sam Cochran, the director of University Counseling Service, said the service referred around a dozen students to the hospital last semester.

He said that while the behavior peaked around the middle of last semester, a dozen referrals is a large increase from the average three or four referrals it usually sees per semester.

“It was definitely something we in the counseling center noticed as an uptick last year,” he said.

Cochran, however, said he doubts whether the average number of students with depression would spike so quickly, and he sees the rise as having other causes.

“We have certainly seen an increase of students [nationally] coming to campus with more heath concerns and more serious health concerns,” he said. “My question is whether we’re seeing a rise in baseline or whether young people are receiving treatment at a younger age and so are able to function well enough to make it to colleges and universities.”

Allison Garmager, the president of the UI chapter of Active Minds, said pinpointing the exact causes of depression and anxiety are difficult because they vary so much.

“It’s different for different people,” she said. “Some people stress a lot over upcoming exams … and other people stress out over social situations.”

While the causes of depression may vary widely, the freshman survey seems to indicate the increased rates of depression and anxiety are part of a decade’s long trend; only 50.7 percent of students rated their emotional health as above average — the lowest this statistic has been since the survey began measuring it in 1985.

While her experience with depression and anxiety have been difficult, Oates said, she has made a lot of progress so far, and while her health interfered with her education in high school and required administrative assistance for school work, she said hasn’t gotten to that point yet in college.

“I went to the University Counseling Service and set myself up with a counselor,” she said. “I went to Student Health and set myself up with a psychiatrist.”

Despite this help however, Oates said last spring was particularly bad.

“Last year, I would get so overwhelmed, and I would not let myself stop, and I pushed myself so far and so far for so long,” she said. “There was a week that I just couldn’t go to class, and I felt totally useless and incapable of anything, and I just didn’t care.”

While Oates said she is grateful for the understanding and help she’s received from the faculty and university, she and Garmager both said they wish the university would do more to promote mental health during freshman year.

“Transition in freshman year is where a lot of people start noticing these things in themselves,” Garmager said. “When they do the college transitions, they need to add mental-health awareness to it. Obviously, alcohol and sexual harassment are important, but mental illness affects just as many, if not more, people.”

Although the 30-minute online mental-health awareness module Kognito is open to all students, it’s not required as part of freshman Orientation.

Although she said she is doing much better, Oates said, the ability to look someone in the eye and talk about her depression comes after much counseling and practice, and more effort is needed to promote mental-health awareness to reduce the stigma surrounding it.

“It takes a lot to tell someone, ‘I can’t get out of bed today because my brain chemicals are messed up,’ ” she said.

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