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Undergrads under stress

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Literally and figuratively, students bring more baggage to college campuses than they did a decade ago. They squeeze a mouth-dropping number of bags and plastic tubs of clothes, bedding and furnishings into dorm rooms.

The other baggage isn't visible.

More students than ever seek treatment for mental and emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety. Many arrive on campus with existing substance-abuse problems or previously diagnosed mental disorders.

University of Charleston Director of Athletics Bren Stevens doesn't know why college students struggle with mental-health issues and substance abuse more today than they did when she began coaching 20 years ago. She speculates that students are developing drug and alcohol issues and becoming sexually active at an earlier age.

"More students and athletes are coming to campus with baggage. They have more problems and need services," she said. "Those problems have always existed, but they've ramped up to a different level."

Stevens noticed a change about 10 years when she was the UC women's volleyball coach and said she wasn't prepared then to handle students who struggled with mental-health issues.

Like most other collegiate faculty members, she learned. She researched the issue and presented information on the topic to an NCAA convention two years ago. The problems won't go away, but the resources are helping. "Our faculty talks about it. They're up to date on these issues," Stevens said.

Cathy Yura, a psychologist and assistant vice president of WELLWVU, the student health service at West Virginia University, first joined the WVU student health staff in 1981 and confirms the trend.

"Depression and anxiety have always been around. What's different today is the severity and variety of mental issues, more students who take medications," she said. "We see more eating disorders and more students attending college whose untreated issues probably would have prevented them from attending college in the past."

Which means that these same students are vulnerable and often ill-equipped to handle the pressures of campus life. They know the bar for success is set ever higher in a harshly competitive job market and wonder if they'll even find a job after graduation. They panic that they're alone in their fears. All their friends and acquaintances seem happy and successful on social media.

"Facebook and Twitter are wonderful ways for students to connect, but when they compare themselves to other friends, they all seem to be having such a great time and doing well," Yura said.

Social media increase students' communication opportunities, but they also can limit face-to-face interaction, which can breed feelings of isolation. Perhaps as a result, more students seek counseling and participate in group sessions.

"Group programs were popular in the '60s and '70s, then went down in the next decades. Now we're seeing the group programs come back," Yura said. "There's less stigma about seeking help."

Add social media and cellphones to the long list of distractions that divert students from their studies. "Fifteen years ago, the only phone was on a wall in the dorm. Now calling and texting is a constant source of demand for attention," said WELLWVU medical director of psychiatry Dr. Brian Quigley.

The right start

Parents who excessively manage their children's lives and rush in to solve challenges and steamroll obstacles for them leave the students with few coping skills when they hit campus. Students who enter college armed with psychological medications for previously diagnosed mental issues are often at risk for a fall.

"An early diagnosis and treatment is not always helpful," said Quigley. "They are at a point in their lives where they need to develop the skills they need to cope with an autonomous situation. We're admitting students who wouldn't have come before." They would not have been ready or equipped to handle the responsibilities of college.

Students taking medications that enable them to attend college often crumble when their support system is removed.

"Mom's not there to make sure they take their medicine. They aren't seeing a counselor three times a week. When that student crashes and burns, it's dramatic," said WELLWVU Director Al Kasprowicz.

Helping hand

Most college campuses are increasing mental-health resources available to students. At UC, students may sign up for free counseling services through the Student Life program.

When a coach, professor or fellow student notices warning signs such as personality and or appetite changes, chronic fatigue or an increase in rash behavior, they need to encourage them to get help. Students are more likely to seek help when they realize it's completely confidential. No one, not faculty, dormitory staff members, coaches or students, will ever be told by the mental-health group which students are receiving counseling, Stevens said.

"We need to communicate to students that there is no shame in getting help," Stevens said.

At WVU, student health service employees maintain a high profile at freshmen orientation to let students know help is available and to get the message out through postings on campus and electronic communication, but students still tend to wait too long before they ask for help. They often self-medicate with alcohol or engage in risky sexual behavior, eventually leading to academic failure.

WVU recently combined physical- and mental-health units into the WELLWVU program and announced the impending construction of wellness facility and new recreational fields next to the student recreation center on the Evansdale campus. "We're trying to work with students more holistically, and not just offer mental services," she said.

Each month, WELLWVU focuses on different wellness issues such as exercise, healthy eating, responsible alcohol consumption and sexual behavior and sleeping habits.

Incoming freshmen are required to take an online alcohol awareness test and pass a subsequent exam on the issues. Alcohol is prohibited in the dorms. "We're really taking it seriously. Alcohol is too available here," Yura said.

Not an anomaly

The rising percentage of students seeking help for mental-health issues and taking medication as treatment reflects a trend in the general population. Data recently released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate a 400 percent increase in antidepressant use since 1988.

Parents can better prepare students for the college experience by encouraging them at an early age to assume responsibility, both for their decisions and actions, and also for their own health care. Students whose parents talk openly about mental-health issues and the value of using student health resources are more likely to seek help should trouble arise, Yura said.

Mental-health issues on college campuses are increasing, but health professionals have ramped up efforts and programs provide resources to help students get back on track. Students just have to ask for help.

The first step really is recognizing that they have a problem.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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