During the summer between his sophomore and junior years at Trinity College, Adam Tewell was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that used to be called manic depression.
It began gradually, switching on and off in fits and starts. His thinking became confused. He had mood swings and crippling panic attacks.
“At first it’s really scary because you know something’s wrong,” Tewell said. “Then you wake up one morning and you lose perspective on the sickness. You don’t realize it’s a problem. You begin to enjoy it. That’s a really bad warning sign that something’s wrong.”
It got so bad that he missed the fall semester that year. With the support of medicine, therapy, doctors, his family and a group of good friends, he returned to Trinity and is finishing his senior year.
Twenty years ago, the story might have had a different outcome.
“I’d probably be locked up in a mental institution or working in a convenience store. Or worst of all, I could be dead,” Tewell said.
Tewell, 22, is among a growing number of students who, thanks to medical advances, can cope with their mental illnesses well enough to attend college.
“It is almost so common that it’s accepted,” he said. “It is a very low-level thing. Oh, so you’re depressed – what’s new?”
Colleges across the country are reporting that increasing numbers of students are seeking mental health services for illnesses or conditions ranging from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia to depression, anxiety, eating disorders and stress.
A survey by the American College Health Association last spring reported that an estimated 38 percent of college students reported depression severe enough that they had difficulty functioning on at least one to 10 occasions in the past year.
The survey also showed that 9 percent of students seriously considered suicide during the same period. The results were based on responses from 19,497 students on 33 campuses.
The number of students seeking counseling for a variety of psychological problems has been rising steadily over the past 15 to 20 years, researchers and college counselors say.
A study at Kansas State University from 1988 to 2003 shows that the number of suicidal college students there tripled, reaching 11 percent during the course of the study. During the same period, the number of students with depression doubled to 41 percent in the study. Those suffering from anxiety increased to 63 percent. The survey tracked about 1,000 students who sought counseling each year of the study.
Mental health counselors at Connecticut college campuses say increasing numbers of troubled students are seeking help.
At Trinity, counselors are seeing nearly 20 percent of the student body at any given time, said Randolph Lee, director of the counseling center at Trinity College.
By the time a class graduates, about half the students have received some kind of therapy, he said.
At the University of Connecticut, counselors are so swamped they have had to limit to eight the number of therapy sessions each student can attend each year. Even so, University of Connecticut officials say they have a waiting list of 49 students seeking therapy.
“We’re downsized and have no more resources with a greater number of students and a greater severity of mental health problems,” said Michael Kurland, health services director at UConn.
Last year, UConn logged 7,000 visits, including repeat trips, to the university’s mental health clinic. The clinic recently added weekend hours.
Yale University counselors report a gradual increase in the number of students seeking services over the past five to 10 years and have hired staff to keep up with the demand.
Experts said there was a spike in students seeking help after Sept. 11, 2001. Depression, suicide and abuse all went up after that date.
“New traumas tend to stir up old traumas,” said Sherry Benton, assistant director of counseling services at Kansas State University. She was part of the survey Kansas State University survey of students seeing counseling.
To try to raise awareness of the mental health issues facing college students, a group of Trinity students led by Tewell is organizing a mental health conference on campus April 3. They hope to draw students from throughout New England to the conference, which will focus on a variety of mental health issues.
Researchers and counselors say it’s hard to tell what’s causing the increase, but there are many theories.
One reason might be an increased awareness of mental health issues and improved treatment options.
Another is that a better arsenal of medicine, earlier diagnosis and a lessening of the stigma surrounding mental illness have made students more willing to seek treatment. Many are seeking treatment in high school and are already on psychotropic drugs when they enroll in college. Some suggest students are suffering from more stress today, including a premium on academic performance, the breakdown of the family and increased financial pressures.
Whatever the reason, campus counseling centers are being stretched to the limit. At the same time, the pinched economy has caused many colleges to cut spending for the centers at a time when more students are seeking help.
Meanwhile, new businesses, many of them Internet-based, have sprouted up to help students recognize symptoms, find help and even get mental health insurance.
On the national level, U.S. Reps. Danny K. Davis, D-Illinois, and Tom Osborne, R-Neb., have introduced a bill to make $10 million in competitive grants available to colleges to provide mental and behavioral health services. The bill was prompted by evidence that more students are depressed and by studies showing that mental health problems can negatively affect student performance and graduation rates.
Occasionally the problem reaches the catastrophic level of a campus suicide. Four New York University students have plunged to their deaths so far this year. Two of the deaths have been ruled suicides. In Connecticut, a UConn student hanged himself in his apartment in October and a Wesleyan sophomore committed suicide in November. Nationally, an estimated 1,100 college students a year commit suicide, making it the second-leading cause of death among college students, second only to car crashes.
Precocious social activity may also be contributing to the trend, experts say.
“Young children now seem to be moving much too quickly into activities carried out by older kids years ago, such as sex and alcohol,” said Robert P. Gallagher, author of a national survey of counseling center directors. Students are drinking heavily in high school and entering college with excessive alcohol habits, he said.
There is also more stress on students to get through college than a generation ago, and the cost is higher in proportion to income, said Sherry Benton, who led the Kansas State University study.
“Students are working more hours and also feel the need to have two or three internships and be involved in clubs,” Benton said. “They are living their lives at an incredible stress level with really bad self-care. They are not sleeping, not eating, not exercising.”