Mental illness and suicide major concerns for college students


Jake Wilson leads two different lives.

In one, he travels the country as a model for Abercrombie and Fitch, and in the other he is a freshman with a double major in marketing and art. And, like his peers, Wilson has struggled to adapt to college life.

After his friend, Brad, committed suicide on their senior trip in the summer of 2010, Wilson was plagued with debilitating panic attacks.

“I thought I was having a heart attack,” Wilson said. “I would fall to the floor and have to brace myself. I didn’t understand what was going on.”

Wilson met with a counselor and was diagnosed with a mixture of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. He was put on an antidepressant for the remainder of the summer, but abruptly quit taking his medication at the beginning of the fall semester.

“I didn’t feel myself (when on medication),” Wilson said. “I didn’t feel like I could meet people, and that’s what the first semester of school is all about. I couldn’t take it.”

A few weeks went by in the fall semester, and soon Wilson’s drive to get out of bed and leave his room in the morning had vanished. One night, Wilson’s drive to live vanished as well, and he quickly learned what his friend had gone through only months before with his own handful of pills.

The next morning, Wilson awoke, nauseated and possibly still “medicated,” and hasn’t looked back since. Before today, he has only ever told one person, but now, he is ready to come clean about his past.

“I’m ready to talk about it because I don’t think it will happen again, but I don’t want people watching me 24/7 just in case,” Wilson said. “This is something people need to know, not about me personally, but they need to know the story.”

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students, and this story is only one of thousands.

While the original reasoning for dropping his medication was linked to a physical side effect of the medication, his most prevalent reason has to do with nothing more than the opinions of others.

“It was a pride issue, too,” Wilson said. “I told myself, ‘There’s no reason for me to take it just because something happened. I need to suck it up.’”

However, according to Stacey Reycraft, director of Student Disability Services, that’s the exact attitude that’s causing the problem.

The facts

“It’s a chemical thing in the brain – you can’t just get over it,” Reycraft said.

As a whole, students with mental illnesses are the most stigmatized group on campus because of mass amounts of misinformation and stereotypes brought about by the media.

“In the south, we tend to reserve feelings,” Wilson said. “With the stats like they are, you would think we would have seen something by now, but we haven’t yet.”

After it was discovered that Seung-Hui Cho of the Virginia Tech shooting was seeing a psychiatrist and that Jared Loughner from the Arizona shooting had schizophrenia, a permanent mark was put on the back of anyone of our generation with a mental illness.

“Statistically speaking, studies show that people with mental illness are more likely to be the victim of violent crime than the perpetrators,” Reycraft said. “When you look at studies that analyze who’s the most prevalent population to become violent, that’s based on age, gender and socio-economic status – and it’s young men of lower economic status. You don’t see campuses saying, ‘We have to figure out how to keep an eye on these students,’ but you see that with mental illness.”

According to a survey in 2008 by the National Institute of Mental Health, eight percent of the population of adults 18-25 had a serious mental illness. During the same study, they discovered that 40.4 percent of the original eight percent have sought treatment.

Part of the reason many young adults do not seek treatment is associated with the stigma that the symptoms are weaknesses and personality flaws that can be erased with will-power and time. Many people with depression, general anxiety disorder, an eating disorder or any other kind of mental illness are often embarrassed by their condition because of this pattern of thinking and do not know how to express their concerns to others.

“You want people to know because you want everyone to know the real you, the full you, but then you don’t want to tell people and it sound like, ‘I have depression, feel sorry for me,’” Wilson said. “You’re constantly thinking, ‘When do I tell them? What do I tell them? Do I ever tell them?’”

In conjunction, most people who have not dealt with depression personally or with a closed loved one does not know how to respond in some situations, often responding with unproductive phrases such as “Snap out of it,” or “Just don’t worry about it.”

“It keeps a lot of kids with mental illnesses isolated and not able to freely discuss the issues they have because they’re afraid of the impact and the way people will treat them,” Reycraft said.

The majority of serious mental illnesses manifest between the ages of 18 and 25, when most people are in the midst of pursuing a degree and facing more stress and change than they ever have before. According to Reycraft, students with a form of mental illness are currently the fastest growing and least represented population on the Ole Miss campus.

On campus

Marc Showalter, director of the University Counseling Center, hopes to be able to provide the highest quality mental health service they can to the community.

“We recognize there’s a large need and we just want to make sure we’re providing the best care possible for as many students as we can,” Showater said.

With an estimated 5,000 individual appointments a year and group services that help hundreds more, the University Counseling Center is on the right track, but treating  illness also requires the correction of misinformation.

In the spring of 2010, the American College Health Association surveyed 95,712 students across 139 unidentified campuses on a wide range of health issues over the course of 12 months. According to the survey, over half of the students polled felt overwhelmed, hopeless, exhausted (not from physical activity), lonely, sad or overwhelming anxiety during the past year. It was also reported that 30.7 percent felt so depressed it was difficult to function, 6.2 percent seriously considered suicide and 1.3 percent attempted suicide.

Along with the individual appointments and support groups, the Counseling Center is working all across campus in conjunction with many departments, not just within the confines of their offices.

“Let’s Talk” is a program designed to bring help and healing out of the office and into the everyday environment of the average student. Four days a week from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m., a counselor is stationed in the Student Union, Luckyday Residential College, Student Health Center or Martindale, depending on the day.

The hope for the program is that it will remove the negative stigma attached to therapy and give students an informal place to talk with a professional without an appointment or even a name.

The Student Intervention Team (SIT) is a group that exists to address student behavioral concerns discreetly and efficiently.  While this is not a disciplinary group, representatives from seven departments across campus review the student’s overall progress and take a comprehensive look at any student who has been referred to SIT.

The team’s experience has shown that most students with a problem in one area also show signs of distress in others. The goal of this team is to work with not only the student, but his or her family and professors as well to establish what the best plan of action is from there.

One concern of both Reycraft and Showalter is the lack of a student-led group on campus. While the Counseling Center and SDS offer as much as they can, they do not have the ability to create a student-only atmosphere without the assistance of a motivated and dedicated student.

Wilson and friend Lisa Morris have been working together for months now to iron out the details of their up-and-coming idea, “Talk Out Loud.”

After working out the kinks and applying for a $100,000 grant about a month ago through, a website dedicated to helping students start programs to better their community, Wilson is hopeful that the organization will make and become an integral part of the mental health awareness scene of Oxford and Ole Miss.

The goal of “Talk Out Loud” is to offer students a safe environment among their peers to discuss their personal problems, issues in the community as a whole and how to educate others on this growing epidemic.

“A lot of times, people with mental illnesses usually don’t ask for help because they’re embarrassed,” Wilson said. “We need to stop sitting back and waiting for people to show interest – there are plenty people out there with interest, they’re just too afraid, scared or embarrassed. The need is out there. The need isn’t just publicizing it. And we need to help them as soon as we can.”

One major aspect that has not been addressed is the training of faculty and staff to respond to students in need. Showalter admits that more focus needs to be put on the education of faculty and staff, but steps have been taken in the right direction.

SIT is the group designated to train and inform the remaining faculty and staff. They speak for whoever is interested, whether it be a residence hall, Greek house or educational department, on subjects like what to look for, how to intercede with a student in distress and how to handle a psychotic break or other outburst in the classroom.

“We have found that in departments that deal with a student who has some kind of mental health concern, those departments are eager to get training,” Showalter said. “If you’ve never experienced it, ‘No one cares where the fire extinguisher is until they smell smoke.’”

Around the SEC

Of the 12 schools residing in the Southeastern Conference, six of them currently have on-campus organizations dedicated to the support for students who are suffering and education for the ones who are uninformed.

Active Minds, one of the most widespread groups in the country with 314 chapters plus seven in Canada and Australia, is a national, nonprofit student-run mental health awareness, education and advocacy group. They currently have active chapters at the University of Arkansas, the University of Florida, the University of Georgia, the University of Memphis, Mississippi State University, the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University.

Brandy Hunter is a University of Memphis graduate student, studying counseling with a concentration in clinical mental health, and a current member of their Active Minds chapter. With three years experience and 12 current members, Hunter and company host multiple events a year.

They range from National Day without Stigma during Mental Health Awareness Week in October to hosting their own suicide prevention awareness month with events such as speakers, round-table discussions and displays of facts and statistics across campus.

“Our goal is to become a ‘mental health friendly’ campus – one in which mental health issues are openly discussed, and the stigma associated with mental health issues are significantly reduced if not eliminated,” Hunter said.

Akida McKinley and the other 25 members of the Active Minds chapter at Mississippi State University sponsor monthly events and activities to educate the community, help reduce the stigma and expose students to others living with mental illnesses.

Currently, they are in the midst of a national event called Send Silence Packing. Backpacks are scattered across the drill field stuffed with stories of people who have either attempted or committed suicide.

Laura Smart, senior psychology major at the University of Georgia, started a chapter of Active Minds in Athens last fall, and it has quickly grown to ten dedicated members.

In their short amount of time, they have participated in National Day without Stigma and National Eating Disorders Awareness Week in late February. They are also currently finishing plans for National Stress Out Day along with at least 120 other chapters of Active Minds.

A rule at UGA states that no student organization is eligible for regular funding until they have been established for two years, so the limited budget puts restrictions on how grandiose their events can be, but that doesn’t stop them from doing what they can afford to do.

“There are a lot of things I wish we could be doing, but the difficulties and logistics of starting a student organization from scratch has made it difficult,” Smart said.

Other than the Out of the Darkness Community Walk that happened last November, there are no set suicide prevention awareness events planned for this school year at Ole Miss.

While the Counseling Center is working with any and all students who walk through their doors, only so much progress can exist without adequate education to misinformed faculty, staff and students. Implementing a student-run advocacy group could be the first step in the right direction.

“The school needs to do a better job at regarding mental illnesses and suicide,” Wilson said. “I wish there was more attention brought to it. There are programs on other campuses that we don’t have, and we need to take notice and get started on that.”

@ The Daily Mississippian — Oxford, Miss.


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