Campuses work to help those with mental illness

Matthew Gruchow

Matthew Gruchow

A trio of recent suicides at New York University has brought the rise of mental illness among college students to the forefront of discussion at many universities including SDSU.

Also being discussed at many universities is the struggle to deal with this growing caseload.

The trend has left many campus mental health services overwhelmed by the number of students seeking mental health care and almost all expanding their services in order to keep up with demand, according to a 2001 report published by a group of college mental health counselors.

So far SDSU has not been a part of this trend, but the school will need to expand its facilities and increase its staff in the near future to serve an increasing caseload, said Janet Mullen, director of health and counseling services.

“We are daily at capacity,” Mullen said. “I wouldn’t say we’re overwhelmed, but we’re working very, very hard.”

The mental health survey showed that the number of students with psychological problems and the number using psychotropic drugs increased from seven percent in 1992 to 18 percent in 2001. The same study showed 85 percent of the universities surveyed reported an increase in their mental health caseloads.

Figures for SDSU were unavailable because there is not an automated system to track statistics. However, each campus counselor is seeing an average of seven students a day, which is the maximum daily caseload, Mullen said.

The center has no psychiatrists or psychologist on staff and must rely on state-certified counselors and graduate students to fulfill counseling needs in addition to referring five percent to ten percent of their caseload out to professionals, Mullen said.

“The rate of problems on college campuses now seems to be equaling the rate outside the campuses. Kids aren’t getting crazier; they’re just getting more like the outside world,” said Hara Marano, an editor at “Psychology Today” magazine. “College is the prime age for the eruption of mental health problems.”

There are a myriad of reasons for the increase of mental health issues among students, Marano said. There are the classical stressors of leaving home, fitting in and worries about future job markets.

However, students are competing at an ever earlier age, causing them to alienate themselves from the support group of friends whom they see as competitors for grades and jobs, she said.

“There’s more academic pressure than ever,” Marano said. “These people have portfolios at seven years of age. There’s just a tremendous (amount of) competition.”

The increased use of antidepressants and psychotropic drugs has helped some students from falling by the academic wayside who normally would not have been able to handle the college environment, Marano said.

SDSU tries hard to make sure students with mental illness continue to stay in class, Mullen said.

“This campus is very accommodating,” Mullen said. “They’re willing to do most anything to get a student back and for them to succeed.”

The fading stigma of seeking counseling and taking antidepressants has helped bring more students to the campus counseling center, said Hande Briddick, a graduate student who counsels students at SDSU.

“Some students come just to improve themselves,” Briddick said. “College students have to fulfill so many roles. Their lives are qualitatively different from those not enrolled.”

Jane, a senior political science major at SDSU who asked that her real name not be used, has shied away from using medication to control her depression, but has sought counseling on campus.

“It’s more acceptable now to go see a counselor than it was 10 or 20 years ago,” she said. “I’ve shied away from taking the drug, because they alleviate the symptoms. They’re not a cure.”

Despite the increased numbers of mental health problems on campuses and the use of medications, the suicide rate of college students has actually fallen from 122 in 2000, to 80 in 2001.

According to the National Mental Health Association, suicide was the second leading killer of college students in 1998.

The suicide rate among 15 to 24 year olds increased two percent in 2002, compared to nine perecnt among the same age group that was enrolled in one of the Big 10 universities, according to Marano.

The last completed suicide on the SDSU campus was Dec. 6, 1982 when 18-year-old Brian Arends was found dead in Binnewies Hall.

SDSU has not seen an increase in suicide attempts, according to University Police Chief Tim Heaton.

“I credit that to the staff at SDSU caring about the students,” Heaton said. “I think the mental health facility does their best to help.”

The counseling services are free for students and staff will always make time for emergency appointments in addition to manning a crisis hotline, Mullen said.