Tynan Hamilton said he knew he wanted to go to BYU ever since he was a child. The Provo native didn’t venture too far from home to attend school. Despite the short distance, Hamilton has traveled a long way since his freshman year in 2012.
“I think about my life at BYU from 2012 to now and think about how much my life has drastically changed,” Hamilton said. “College is like an emotional rollercoaster; you’re experiencing so many new things.”
BYU is the place where Hamilton said he came to terms with his sexuality. When he was a freshman, he never planned to talk to anyone about being gay. He said the growth and maturity he experienced on his mission changed that.
“My whole coming out and continuing to figure out this part of my life has all taken place while being here at BYU,” Hamilton said. “Being here has sometimes made it a blessing, while other times, it made it even harder for me.”
Hamilton is currently pursuing a degree in accounting through the BYU Marriott School of Business and he said he has a pretty heavy academic load.
“The accounting program is very competitive from the start. It is frequently touted as difficult to get into the program, and once you are in, the junior core year is challenging and time consuming,” Hamilton said. “You are working on school and also feeling a lot of pressure to find an internship or a job right from the start. It was overwhelming, but the professors and staff in the department are always so helpful.”
The social pressures and rigorous academic atmosphere of BYU is beneficial to students in that it provides them with good experiences and a quality education; however, it can impact the mental health of students who feel extreme pressure to excel. BYU is aware of the mental health challenges of their students and is responding by providing additional help and resources.
Dealing with social and academic pressures
Megan Ackerman is a sophomore who currently performs as the beatboxer for BYU’s all-female a cappella group Noteworthy. The Elko, Nev., native is studying wildlife and wildlands conservation and said she loves the quality education and active social scene that BYU offers. But she has also bent beneath the stress of being in a college environment.
“I’ve often described BYU’s cultural aspects as a pressure cooker,” Ackerman said.
With the pressures of dating, relationships, getting married and academics, Ackerman said she felt like she had to become a perfect version of herself. It got to the point where she felt anxiety just coming onto campus.
Ofa Hafoka-Kanuch started working as a mental health counselor at BYU Counseling and Psychological Services at the beginning of fall semester.
“At BYU, we see a range of presenting concerns. A lot of the students here come into the counseling center for symptoms of depression and anxiety,” Hafoka-Kanuch said. “In this stage of life, students are transitioning from high school to college life. They’re adjusting to the course work and adjusting to BYU. There’s a lot of stress with that.”
Hiu Wai Yoko Caldwell also works as a mental health counselor and was hired alongside Hafoka-Kanuch this semester. She said the anxiety that comes from the pressure to excel is one of the common reasons students come into the CAPS office.
“A lot of people here are always demanding excellency,” Caldwell said. “I know students who get an A- and think they’re not good enough.”
The pressure to excel doesn’t just apply to grades. Caldwell also meets with students who feel the need to excel in extracurricular activities and church callings. She advises students to focus less on their shortcomings and acknowledge their accomplishments.
“It’s good to have the motivation to keep learning and improving,” Caldwell said. “But students also need to allow themselves to have time and space to appreciate themselves for who they are right now.”
The cry for mental health resources appears to be on the rise. According to a report provided by the CAPS office, the number of students who check into the office has increased by 50.63% over the past seven years. In 2018 there were 5,653 students who checked in, which is 1,900 more than the number of students who sought counseling services in 2012.
The number one reason students make an appointment with a counselor is for anxiety, and depression is a close second. These concerns are generally accompanied by a sense of stress related to school or relationships.
More students come in during the months of March, April, November and December compared to other times throughout the year. Those coming to therapy tend to feel worse in the winter months and better in the summer
“Students at BYU face the same challenges and human problems as other university students, said Corinne Hannan, who has worked as a mental health counselor with BYU CAPS since 2010.
However, Hannan said there may be some ways that religious overlay at BYU affects how students present themselves at CAPS.
“For example, we tend to have very low substance abuse, which is quite different from other campuses as far as I know,” Hannan said. “We also seem to have high levels of perfectionism, maybe at higher rates due to religious overlay and many high-achieving students.”
Other unique concerns Hannan brought up are “scrupulosity,” which is a pathological guilt about moral and religious issues. Also, sexual and LGBTQ concerns, where religious overlay can affect how these clients present themselves at BYU.
Mental health resources for BYU students
The first time Hamilton sought out therapy, he said he was scared. He went to the basement of the Wilkinson Student Center and walked past the CAPS office multiple times thinking, “Am I going to do this? Should I set up an appointment?”
“I was definitely nervous because I also thought about who would see me coming here and was embarrassed by that,” Hamilton said. “But when I first met with my therapist, it was calming to see that I could just be completely open and honest.”
BYU CAPS currently has 32 full-time clinicians who offer individual therapy and group therapy sessions, a viable option for students who prefer group settings or don’t want to be on the waitlist for individual therapy.
“I think it’s really helpful when someone can acknowledge they need help and then seek it. Hafoka-Kanuch said. “I do understand that I’m a stranger to some people, so that might be intimidating for a student to come and talk to me, but we have professional training to help.”
Some students may not feel they are anxious or depressed to the point of having to meet with a therapist, but still may want resources to improve their mental health. BYU recently purchased rights to use Sanvello, which is an app for reducing stress, depression and anxiety. Sanvello can help students with cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness meditation and mood and health tracking. BYU students can download and use the app for free by providing their BYU net ID.
The CAPS office also offers dietician services and biofeedback services — a program that can help students understand how their bodies react to stress or danger.
Hannan advises students to increase their self-care and health by directed behaviors like sleep, exercise, nutrition, nurturing relationships, mindful meditation and socializing.
“This affects academic performance positively overall,” Hannan said. “Do not underestimate the power of health behaviors and connection with others. We are wired for social connection and need it to function and feel well.”
“I’ve always had open communication with my roommates, and we were able to support each other. I realize that as I’ve been vulnerable and open up to other people, it allows them to see that it’s a safe place to do the same,” Hamilton said. “It makes it a safer place for everyone involved.”