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Research shows that mental illness among college students is now more prevalent than ever before. With more students flocking to student health services for help, university counselors are forced to kick into high gear.
By TOM MULLENIX
For many, college is a time of exploration, independence and growth. For others, it is a time of self-doubt, loneliness and depression.
“When I came to college, I thought it was going to be all fun and games,” said Bryant Encarnado, 22, a senior at DePaul University in Chicago. “I wasn’t prepared for how lonely and stressful it could be.”
Encarnado is not alone. According to the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, approximately one-fourth of all students who visited an on-campus health center facility in 2011 were diagnosed with depression.
Jeffrey Lanfear, a director of counseling services at DePaul University, said that depression is the second largest problem in the counseling center, just behind anxiety.
“There is actually a lot of overlap between anxiety and depression,” Lanfear said. “These two are the ‘common colds’ of mental health.”
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) reports that nearly 15 percent of the world population will suffer from clinical depression at some point in time. Perhaps even more alarming, though, is that 30 percent of all clinically depressed individuals attempt suicide. Half are successful.
In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 and 24, with close to 4,400 lives lost each year, according to WebMD.
“After a while you begin to feel like you have hit a point of no return,” Encarnado said. “For me, that was when I began to seek professional help.”
For Encarnado and many others, the road to recovery has been anything but easy. Several suicide attempts later, Encarnado said he is here to share his story and give hope to others.
“It was a dark time and I began to cut,” Encarnado said. “I am here now to tell others that suicide is never the answer.”
Recognizing the Symptoms
According to Lanfear, 40 percent of all students experience depression sometime during their college career in such a way that they have trouble functioning.
“Depression exists on a continuum from feeling sad, blue, or down for more than a couple weeks; to major depression wherein it might be very hard to function academically or personally,” Lanfear said.
Depression can manifest itself in many ways. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common signs of depression include irritability, restlessness, insomnia or excessive sleeping, changes in appetite or weight, indecisiveness, loss of interest in normal activities, poor concentration, and thoughts of suicide.
“Many people are able to ‘hide’ their depression by isolation or through increased alcohol consumption or use of other substances,” Lanfear said. “Not all people manifest the same symptoms.”
Part of the difficulty in expressing one’s depression is the guilt of burdening someone else, said Encarnado.
As colleges and universities throughout the country continue to experience an increase in students seeking help, counseling services are altering their services so as to cater to student’s needs and accommodate those students with delicate mental health issues.
University Counseling Services (UCS) at DePaul offers a wide range of services including individual counseling, group counseling and skill building workshops, Lanfear said.
“UCS employs a diverse group of counselors who are skilled and caring,” he said. “With good psychological counseling, often a person’s mood will change within a brief time frame and their whole perspective on the self, the world and the future can shift in positive directions.”
Many schools, like DePaul, will also hire a consulting psychiatrist to prescribe medication. In addition, counseling centers are responsible for locating referrals in the community for students who want or need longer term counseling or psychiatric services. And yet, with so many services at their disposal, some still refuse to seek help.
“One of the difficult parts of depression is the sense of hopelessness,” Encarnado said. “This can be a major barrier in accessing treatment.”
Maximizing one’s health, wellness and resiliency is an important dimension of student learning. Even if a student is not feeling depressed, the chance of weathering the storms of life and keeping balance is maximized if one is practicing good self-care.
“The most important thing to realize,” Lanfear said. “Is that reaching out and seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.”
Encarnado continues to utilize the university’s counseling services and his outlook on life has changed since discovering that there are people who want to help.
“The number one thing I tell those struggling with depression or any mental disorder is to open up to others,” Encarnado said. “It could save your life.”