Anxiety escalating among college students

By Aretha Welch
Editor in Chief

Justin Lanis was 22 years old and had just started college when he first thought about killing himself.

“I sat in the kitchen with a bottle of bleach for about an hour,” he said, letting out a slow sigh before a pregnant spell of silence.

Now 25, he looks back at that surreal moment, the first of three low points in which he seriously contemplated suicide. He said it wasn’t sadness, as his voice began to crack. He described those darkest hours as a “constant state of panic” punctuated by “incessant knots in my stomach.”

Lanis said he was worried about grades. While juggling work and family responsibilities.

“I guess it was regular things. But for me it didn’t feel regular,” Lanis is now in his sixth semester at a Bay Area community college. “It felt like my brain was constantly racing. I thought I was going crazy and I wanted to be normal so badly.”

Last September, he was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Though it sounds excessive, studies are showing Lanis’ issues are more common among college students than many may think.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million adults in America suffer from an anxiety disorder, 30 million of which experience their first episode by age 22. Per the same organization, colleges have seen a steady increase over the past 15 years of students seeking help on campus for severe anxiety. The high-stress environment of college, coupled with the financial stressors, are leaving many college students overwhelmed. Increased suicide rates have led to an upsurge in nation-wide prevention campaigns on college campuses. Yet the issue of anxiety, which some are calling the underlying issue, is being overlooked.

“Of the first 20 students I saw when I started working here, 17 of them said they had had suicidal thoughts,” said Nancy Schulz, LPC’s mental health counselor. “That’s not to say that everybody attempts it, but that just shows it is much more frequent than people may think.”

She said they many students describe the transition from high school to college as stressful and exhausting. She keeps one spot open per week in case one of those students comes in with an emergency. Schulz’s experience at the campus health center is not very different from those faced by many other counselors at universities and colleges across the country.

A national survey conducted by Penn State University found that 60 percent of university health center directors reported a record number of students were using campus counseling services. And they’re using them for longer periods than ever before. The survey results were used as part of the 2006 audit on the state of mental illness conducted by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. “You could hardly design a more stressful atmosphere (college), particularly when depression or other mental health issues enter the picture,” said Jackie Burell, author of the Grim numbers about Adolescents and Suicide, part of About.com’s series on college and teen suicide statistics.

The American College Health Association (ACHA) states that the suicide rate among 15 to 24 year olds has tripled in the last half century. John Gothman, head of mental counseling at Hofstra University in New York, talked about the increased usage of psychiatric medications among college students. In an interview with Psych Central he said the percentage of students using meds — mostly for depression, anxiety and ADD — rose from 11 percent in 1998 to 24 percent in 2009. He considered the increase to be alarming.

“Yes I think I have a mental illness,” college student Ellen Chang said in a voice so soft it made more sense to read her lips.

“And yes I’ve thought about suicide,”she said.

“There is a lot of stress associated with coming to college, especially when all you hear every day is how slow the economic recovery is going and how stagnant the job market is.”

Chang, the daughter of two Jamaican-born Asian parents, is the first in her family to go to college.

“I have to keep my GPA up to scholarships and not disappoint family,” 19-year-old Chang    said. Roma Chang, Ellen’s mother, said she has noticed her daughter has been different but can’t say why.

“She is a good daughter, but recently she has been sleeping in a lot, not showing a desire to go to her classes. It’s been an abrupt change,” Roma said.

“It’s just a lot, and it’s scary, and nobody wants to admit they feel like they’re going insane,” Chang said.

“So instead you just consider ending it all,” she  said.

She wipes a lone tear from her right cheek as she explains why she sat alone in her Nissan Cube for six hours, after failing a statistics test last semester.

“Honestly the only reason I’m still here is because I’m a bigger coward than I am a worry wart,” she said.

During an interview published in the medical journal Primary Psychiatry, Fawcett said that mental health experts should move to treat anxiety aggressively, once it is diagnosed. Failure to do so could increase the patient’s risk of committing suicide.

Anxiety disorders are part of the mental health illnesses family that stem from anxiety, fear and stress. Generalized Anxiety Disorders (GAD), Obsessive  Compulsive Disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, certain phobias and social anxiety are all part of the family.

In an article published by Fox Business News last year, the reasons why college life is stressful is summed up expert psychologists said that going to college was a highly stressful time for most as the new time management skills, the changes to ones daily routine and the way one’s sleeping and eating habits would now be changed due to the demands of being both and adult and student.

“This economy does not make things easier either. My entire college fund was ate up by bad investments. Now to come to LPC I have to keep a job. I never planned for it to be like this,” Jessica Espino, a first year LPC student said.

Money woes are not the only precursor to stress and suicidal ideation however.

“Yes  I’ve thought  about suicide,” said Kevin Jodi.

Jodi is a gay college student from San Francisco. He is not openly gay, however. “The first time I had sex with another man, I thought about killing myself. I was 16. I knew I was up s— creek without a paddle,” Jodi said. Today Jodi is 26 and has yet to tell his parents that he is gay, this is the source of his anxiety.  Schulz said many college students face problems similar  to Jodi’s.

“Students struggling with sexual identity issues are expected to do well in school, but they also have many other things going on inside,” Schulz said. “College can make a tough situation even tougher for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.”

Many students who deal with anxiety suffer in silence, said Schulz. The mental health professional said that because anxiety’s symptoms can be seen as so many other maladies, the illness can go undiagnosed for many years.

How to spot an anxiety disorder

While mental health professionals may still disagree with how to diagnose anxiety and suicidal ideation, research from a number of online health journals outline five basic factors as signs that someone is suffering from severe anxiety and should seek help.

1.    A significant change in the person’s sleep patterns can be an indication of a mental issue.

2. A person that is easily angered or irritated or cries excessively may be suffering with a mental disorder.

3. Drastic changes in eating habits may be a sign.

4. Complaints of lingering aches and pains not linked to a physical illness may be a manifestation of mental illness in the sufferer.

5. If the person expresses anxiety over everyday things or negative emotions consistently they may need professional help.

6. Avoidance of family and friends, isolation and withdrawing from activities which the person    usually  enjoys is also an indicator in many cases.

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