Real Stories

Mental Health on College Campuses

University of Hollywood

Finding love in college, as depicted by movies and television: you’re reading a book—probably Shakespeare—on a grassy area on campus. You’ve propped yourself up against an old oak tree. It’s a beautiful day. Suddenly, a football lands at your feet. Someone appears in front of you; you look up from your book, blinded by the glare of the sun. The blurry shape in front of you turns into a smiling, blue-eyed man. So begins your impossible love story.

Attending parties in college, as depicted by movies and television: you find yourself at the steps of an extravagant white home. Music is blaring. A shirtless man with a backwards hat and sunglasses greets you at the door and pulls you into the chaos inside. Before you know it, you’re doing keg stands, smoking marijuana, and wearing a lampshade on your head. You wake up the next morning in the front lawn with one shoe missing.

College is supposed to be the greatest four (or more) years of our lives. Hollywood tells us so. We’ve grown up watching movies like Animal House, The House Bunny, and Pitch Perfect. It’s no wonder we walk onto campus as bright-eyed freshmen with unrealistic, wild expectations. I know I did. I thought I would instantly become best friends with my roommate. I thought it would be easy to make a ton of new friends. I thought it would be simple to get involved with organizations and clubs on campus. I thought it would be fun to stay up too late and drink too much.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

There were a lot of aspects about college that were amazing. I loved how our small town practically shut down on football game days. I loved dancing and singing with my friends in cramped bars. I loved learning new skills and ways of thinking in my classes. Free time was abundant—and now that I work a full-time job—underappreciated. It’s easy to talk about how much fun I had in college, and how I miss the “good old days.”

It’s harder to talk about the days that made me cry. And scream. And worry. Freshman year was brutal. I was happy to quickly make a few friends in my dorm, but I was out of my element. I was used to being with the same friends I had since elementary school. Although I had some friends who went to my college, it felt like I was starting from scratch with my social life. I was also in an unhealthy, long-distance relationship that was draining me emotionally. One of the first new friendships I developed slowly turned into toxic codependency, and came to an end by the beginning of the next school year.

In February of my sophomore year, I broke my wrist in a snowboarding accident. My friends and family were supportive and helpful, but I still felt alone. I lived a sheltered, privileged life back at home. I depended immensely on my parents to clean my scraped knees and dry my tears. It wasn’t until I was four hours away from them that I realized how much I needed them. All of the doctor appointments, hospital bills, and growing pile of incomplete schoolwork made me dizzy. I cried most days.

Those two little words

Mental health. I knew I struggled with anxiety and depression in college, but I didn’t know their magnitude across college campuses. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) 2015 annual report indicated depression, anxiety, and social anxiety have demonstrated slow but consistent growth over the past five years. The report also indicated the number of college students who have considered suicide has increased by more than 10 percent over the last five years. However, mental health is not a new concept; we are just more comfortable talking about it now. I inquire you to ask Baby Boomers and Generation X about how much they talked about mental health when they were growing up. Short answer—they didn’t.

Fortunately for us all, the stigma that once plagued us is slowly dissipating. Gregg Henriques, director of the Combined Clinical and School Psychology Doctoral Program at James Madison University, describes the cultural shift we’ve experienced toward normalizing mental illness. Henriques poses the question: “Are we seeing an ‘epidemic’ of mental illness racing through the country? Or are we seeing a shift in attitudes, definitions, and the expectation of, availability of, and willingness to seek mental health treatment?” He argues the upsurge for college students—in additional to actual increases in emotional fragility and distress—could be partially attributed to our growing acceptance of discussing and seeking help for mental health issues. In other words, we are suffering, but we are no longer suffering in silence. We’re finally growing up in a time that empowers us to speak up when something doesn’t feel right.

Getting students the help they need

When I was depressed during my sophomore year, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I still viewed counseling as taboo…as something I didn’t need because I wasn’t “crazy.” Looking back, I wonder if I felt that way because I didn’t know anyone who went to counseling. It wasn’t until one of my best friends revealed to me that year that she was going to therapy and taking antidepressants that I had the realization—it’s okay to feel this way. It’s okay to ask for help. She encouraged me to make an appointment at the on-campus counseling center. So, I did. We walked up the stairs to the counseling center together. To my surprise, one of our other friends was sitting in the waiting room. I was relieved. Seeing him there was another turning point for me, because you never know what other people are going through. How we appear to others is rarely an accurate representation of the pain and demons we battle internally. At that moment, I knew I was in the right place.

According to the latest Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors survey, 51 percent of college counseling center directors surveyed said their counseling center budgets continue to increase; however, 32 percent reported their centers have a waitlist at some point during the year. While it’s a good sign that we are investing more in mental health services and that more students are seeking help, resources are still inadequate. According to the survey, the average mental health staff member to student ratio was 664 for small colleges, 1,864 for mid-size colleges/universities, and 2,731 for large universities. I attended a university with more than 30,000 people. How can we reduce students’ mental health struggles when one counselor is responsible for nearly 3,000 students?

Our increasingly open dialogue around mental health on college campuses is heartening, but we need more than a conversation. Colleges and universities need to continue investing in their on-campus counseling centers. Counseling centers need to continue making themselves known to the students they serve. If my friend hadn’t referred me to our college’s counseling center, I probably would’ve never gone or heard about it. Just the other day, I encouraged my brother to check out that same exact counseling center. He was shocked when I told them the center had legitimate, licensed medical practitioners. Word-of-mouth marketing is clearly effective, but I know there are still countless students on campuses who need help and don’t know who to ask or where to go.

Colleges and universities have a responsibility to their students to provide a safe, nurturing environment. My college years were a rollercoaster—a bit of yelling, some crying, and many moments of pure bliss. On-campus counseling centers and mental health resources/services help students achieve clarity in one of the most confusing, chaotic times of their lives. So, let’s keep talking. Let’s keep investing. Let’s reflect on the times we received a helping hand and pay it forward.

by Natalie Robertson

I’m a curious writer/blogger with an adventurous soul and deep appreciation for the small details that make up our lives. I’m here to share my stories and insight to help you feel heard, connected, and understood.


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