Big stress on campus
Chico State counselors discuss mental health issues facing Wildcats
With each passing semester, a trend has become anecdotally apparent to the counselors at Chico State’s Counseling and Wellness Center—more students are seeking mental health services than ever before.
That doesn’t necessarily reflect a growing prevalence of mental distress in the student population, counselor Juni Banerjee-Stevens said during an interview in her office in the Student Services Center. She’s bolstered on-campus mentorship and outreach efforts aimed at preventing suicide since joining the counseling center in 2009.
Since she’s helped spread the word around, Banerjee-Stevens offered one possible explanation: More students know that counseling services are available.
“Our main mission in doing the outreach is to demystify what happens here,” she said. “We just talk; there’s no magical process. The more students experience that, the more word gets out that therapy is accessible and friendly and you don’t have to be severely depressed or struggling to the point where you can’t function to get something out of the process.”
It’s also possible that the increased number of students using the counseling center is a sign that the stigma associated with receiving mental health treatment is diminishing.
“I think it is breaking down, and across ethnicities,” said Mimi Bommersbach, who retired last spring after 13 years of counseling Chico State students. “Over the last few years, I’ve noticed more Latino students, who traditionally wouldn’t come in. That’s great; we’re not just serving one population of students.”
But both Bommersbach and Banerjee-Stevens believe there is more to the phenomenon—that students actually are more stressed out.
“We saw this happening after the economic downturn,” Bommersbach said. “There’s this level of stress around finances that wasn’t really in the picture before 2008. And it continues—the stress of taking as many units as possible in order to graduate quickly, and working as many jobs as possible to avoid accruing too much debt.
“That was a real shift from ‘I’m going to go to college, it might take me five or six years.’”
Banerjee-Stevens started training to be a counselor just as the recession got into full swing; since then, she’s noticed symptoms of anxiety in more of the students she meets.
“I think a lot of our students are legitimately worried if going to college is a sound investment,” she said, “‘I’m investing all this time and money, my parents are making a huge sacrifice, and then I probably can’t find a job when I’m done.’”
In prerecession years, Chico State freshmen were encouraged to take on a modest workload of 12 credits, Bommersbach recalled. Now, taking 15 units is typical for those first-year students.
That’s just one more class, but that can make a big difference. After all, for students, these financial stressors coincide with worries as old as the university—living independently for the first time, making friends, choosing a career path, attracting members of the opposite sex, defining and developing an adult identity, and toeing the line between cutting loose and chemical dependence.
“It’s a lot of challenges all at once,” Bommersbach said. “We work with students to really put a balance in their lives. Maybe you need to drop a class, work less, or get some support, because it’s hard going to college and being away from home.”
In addition to a higher volume of clients, the counseling center staff has encountered more acute cases of anxiety or depression in recent semesters, Bommersbach said.
Banerjee-Stevens concurred, although with the caveat that she doesn’t have the same long-term perspective as Bommersbach.
“We all feel the same thing,” Banerjee-Stevens said. “Not just my colleagues here at Chico State, but counselors across the country are seeing more students struggling with thoughts of suicide, more students suffering abuse and trauma in their families, more students having traumatic experiences while they’re in college.”
Is it that students are more comfortable talking about such personal subjects? Or is severe mental distress is becoming more common?
“I can’t answer that,” Banerjee-Stevens said. “But I will say we’re doing more crisis-management than we were a few years ago.”
In any case, there’s no doubt that mental illness is already widespread among college-age adults.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 4 adults ages 18 to 24 has a diagnosable mental condition. A separate NAMI survey found that, over the last year, more than 11 percent of college students were diagnosed or treated for anxiety, and more than 10 percent reported being diagnosed or treated for depression.
Even so, most students with such a condition feel very much alone in their struggle, Bommersbach said.
“There’s a misperception that everyone is having a good time but them,” she said. “We do this mental filtering where we look only at the students who are doing great and compare ourselves.
“But college is a stressful time; it’s normal for the wheels to come off at some point,” she continued. “We just want to be sure that, when people start to feel that way, that’s when they come talk to us.”