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Addressing the Issue of Mental Health on College Campuses

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It's not breaking news that college students deal with a lot of stress. From classes to extracurricular activities to being away from home, the pressures that accrue can be overwhelming. And these pressures are shared among students in all college environments, whether those schools are on the west coast or east coast, big or small, rural or urban. More recently some speculate that the problem of student stress is being exacerbated by the climate of isolated, smaller colleges.

It is a difficult question to assess, but reactions from students at very different college environments suggest that the problem is prevalent regardless of size of the school or the climate it is in. Colgate University, a small liberal arts college in the Northeast where the temperatures were routinely twenty below zero, deals with their own mental and physical health problems on campus, but shares many of the same challenges with University of California at Berkeley, a large state school whose population is close to ten times that of Colgate and whose average winter temperatures are in the low 60s. Coping with college stress is a big deal, and it doesn't seem to depend on where or what kind of school a student attends. What is clear is that the issues are not something that can be ignored.

Ben Greenberg, a junior at University California at Berkeley, described that student stress is an apparent issue on campus, but recognizes that differences in college environments allows those issues to manifest themselves in varying degrees of severity.

"I have witnessed people experience depression due to the stresses of school and life at Cal, along with drug abuse," Greenberg said. "I can't speak as much about eating disorders, but they are prevalent."

Greenberg explained that students on campus combat the pressures in differing ways, but much is in reaction to academic pressure.

"Because of the difficulty of the school, many people have a 'work hard play hard' mentality," he said. "This can be a remedy for school induced stress, but often times it just suppresses feelings that will be brought up later."

This also translates into action, as Greenberg noted that abusing ADD medications is prevalent.

"There is a big market for study drugs at Cal, which increases the stress and competitiveness at the school, as I'm sure there is at other schools," Greenberg said. "Often times in difficult classes, you are tragically at a competitive disadvantage if you do not take study drugs."

Greenberg speculates that being on a larger campus with a larger student body means a student is responsible for not only their actions but also their self-motivation.

"The biggest difference is that you are more on your own at a school like Cal," he said. "Most classes are optional, and nobody will tell you to go if you do not. Some people cannot handle this lack of structure, and there is therefore a fairly high dropout rate. I know multiple people who had dropped out or taken a year/semester off due to not being able to handle life at Cal."

Others argue that there is something unique to the kind of climate (pun intended) that students at schools like Colgate experience. Junior at Colgate University Kristen Weiner has been the president of Active Minds for two years, a chapter of the nationally recognized Active Minds organization in Washington D.C. The student group on Colgate's campus works to change the conversation about mental health on college campuses, and recognizes how the amount of stress, and how students on campus deal with that stress, shouldn't be accepted as customary.

"It's really hard here, at Colgate specifically, because the norm at Colgate is not the norm," she said. "We are a very driven, athletic, very fitness-oriented, perfection-seeking school, and that has lead us to a lot of success, but it has also put this immense pressure on the student body."

The amount of stress and anxiety that students deal with, Weiner explained, manifests in a variety of problems, including, but not limited to, over-exercising and eating disorders.
"We have a very awful percentage, almost a fourth of the student body, that have expressed some kind of disordered eating or behavior, which is just too much," Weiner said.

Weiner said that the Active Minds group helps to bring awareness to such issues.
"I think where Active Minds comes is just saying that this is the reality, there doesn't have to be this stigma, so let's talk about it and bring us all a step forward in trying to heal this," she said.

One of the most controversial topics among college students today is the abuse of study drugs. Weiner finds that while it is a contentious area, she wants to get more conversations going about it, particularly as it relates to Colgate's environment.

"It's ridiculous how on finals week you see things like people selling their Adderall," she said. "This gets into the mental health of talking about what is healthy stress, what is negative stress ... when people who don't have learning disabilities take medicine it's unfair to everybody. It's unfair to the people who actually need it and it's unfair to the people who chose not to take it. It's not this group's job to diagnose, we're more spreading awareness that things need to change. And giving a voice to the students that don't want to be part of that unreal norm."

If students can recognize such problems on campus, whether its over-exercising, under-eating, abusing study drugs, what would be a more balanced culture for a college student? In college, at any college, you're going to encounter these kinds of problems. So what could a healthier situation look like?

"I feel like all of their resources are really underused because people might feel stigmatized to walk in and seek the help," Weiner said of support offered for students at Colgate. "In a more ideal situation, the resources that we already have would just be used more. I think a lot of colleges do have those resources but they're stigmatized."

It falls on the students themselves, Weiner explained, to utilize the resources that are already made available to them in their respective college setting. Whether or not students can be bothered comes down to if they are willing to help themselves, rather than find a temporary solution.

"At the end of the day, it is so much easier to take Adderall than to make a weekly appointment for a month," Weiner said.

Fellow Colgate junior Monique Francois works as the publicity intern at the Shaw Wellness Institute, the center at the university that promotes a variety of events and programs designed to help students and their college lifestyles, which also funds Active Minds on its campus. She noted that one of the main problems for which students seek help is dealing with stress and anxiety.

"A lot of our focus is on providing events that will help with stress and anxiety," Francois said, "but because Colgate students have so much that they do, they don't often attend these events, because how could you then fit that into your already busy schedule?"

Francois noted that from her experience in working at the Wellness Institute that the kinds of behaviors detected aren't unique to just Colgate, but do fit a similar mold.

"I think that it's not necessarily specific to Colgate as much as it is small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast," she said, "since it's where we see a lot of the same habits, behaviors and issues ... I think being isolated as we are, and the winter, make it a lot more difficult for students here, and so you have to take extra precautions so you're able to thrive."

Regardless of the size of the institution or its location, college students are dealing with immense stresses that are leading to unhealthy outcomes. And it cannot be comforting that these kinds of problems are not isolated, but rather recognized by students nation-wide.