Researchers in medicine and psychology say that college depression has doubled in the past 15 years and suicide tripled against a backdrop of other stress-related symptoms that plague many students.
The National Institute of Mental Health website states that in 2011, about 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was hard to function” at some time in the past year.
Locally, professionals at the BYU Counseling and Psychological Center (CAPS) and professors at UVU report that anxiety and depression are also on the rise at Utah universities. Many students who just need a little guidance getting through the difficult transitions that college life requires are often either afraid to ask or simply don’t know where to turn.
“Especially at BYU, everyone’s trying to put their best foot forward and show only the good sides of themselves,” said Dr. Kris Doty, assistant professor of psychology and behavioral science at UVU. “In reality, people are experiencing normal human emotions and having normal lousy life experiences, and rather than dealing with it or letting someone know they’re having these problems, they try to hide it or outrun it by throwing themselves into their academic work or other areas that they’re strong in.”
Students describe racing thoughts, appetite changes, withdrawal from social activities, inability to fall asleep for hours, forgetting deadlines and waves of guilt as some of the plaguing symptoms of toxic stress levels.
“I couldn’t take my mind off of everything I needed to do at school,” said BYU junior Tanner Carlock. “My mind was constantly racing, and my body didn’t have a chance to calm down. … The dreams I had of going to med school, becoming a doctor and changing the world didn’t seem realistic, and that thought made me feel a little panicky.”
Carlock believes that adjusting and maturing take time, creating a great deal of bottled-up stress that can lead to feeling overwhelmed and isolated. Like many high-achieving college men his age, the 23-year-old worries about pivotal life decisions: which classes he should take, choosing a major and career, social relationships and even how much time to devote to volunteer work. And like most men, Carlock feels additional pressure from the societal expectation to just “man up” instead of seeking help.
Doty believes that a contributing factor to a student’s internalization of stress can also be traced to parental expectations.
“Perfectionism is particularly toxic here in Utah Valley,” Doty said. “Hyper-competitiveness is passed on socially from parents who have either done really well and expect that of their children or from parents who expect their children to live their own unfulfilled dreams.”
Doty also warns that the additional self-discipline and comparative introspection that comes with adhering to the doctrines of the LDS faith can sometimes lead to unintended outcomes. Doty is currently conducting research analyzing the relationship between faith and depression. She worries that one of the very things that should be offering support during the pivotal period of young adulthood gets skewed into a debilitating cycle of perfectionism.
“The Lord said, ‘Be ye therefore perfect,’ and too often this isn’t being interpreted as I believe it was intended,” Doty said. “Somewhere in the quest for perfection, students in a faith-focused community can often go beyond the spiritual intent of the word ‘perfect,’ meaning ‘complete,’ and think that it means to be without flaw, which it doesn’t.”
Carlock admits to being a victim of perfectionism himself. A transfer student from LDS Business College, he had to learn to adjust to the rigor of BYU classes and even being “okay” with not performing to the same exacting standards he was used to.
“I really wasn’t aware of what was going on,” he said. “My life has changed completely just from meeting with someone about 20 times throughout the school year. It’s all about putting things in perspective … it’s a gradual process where you have to learn that there is no such thing as perfection.”
Doty also points out that pervasive technology has allowed media and its influences to play a larger and larger role in LDS students’ self-evaluation of body image and what constitutes success.
“If you’re not a size two then you’re a fat pig,” she said. “And motherhood is considered as having very low social and intellectual prestige. Women, especially LDS women, are trying to find our place in all this; we’re trying to figure out how we can juggle being successful in the workplace and in school while still maintaining that we are a woman focused on home and wanting to raise a family and those kinds of things.”
Lanae Valentine, Director of Women’s Services and Resources (WSR) at BYU, hopes that female students who aren’t sure that they want to go to the Counseling Center might see her office as a first step when life simply gets overwhelming or if there are more serious issues of assault, rape or abuse.
“It happens to more women than we think and can really mess up a school career,” Valentine said. “We want to be a place they can come and feel safe and supported. We’re good at empowering, supporting and connecting people.”
WSR offers consultations for women on a drop-by basis for issues relating to relationships, body image, eating disorders, empowerment after abuse or violence, and nutrition counseling.
Andria McCall is the co-chair of the CAPS outreach council at BYU and a senior majoring in psychology. She hopes students can eventually learn to look at the effects of stress, anxiety and depression experienced by their fellow classmates with a more sympathetic eye.
“You wouldn’t make fun of someone who has MS or is an amputee, so why allow yourself to think it’s a big deal to be coping with mental health issues?” McCall said. “It would be a lot better if people could just see it as another illness that makes life harder to get through. It would be great if we could take the stigma out of depression until it’s just a ‘So what? That could easily be me.’ There is no shame in needing extra help with life issues any more than there would be for a diabetic to need insulin.”