At the same time as suicide and depression rates for teenagers have increased drastically so too have the rates for college students in the past two decades. At Harvard, mental health officials have seen an increase in the number of students seeking their services. And, in a recent study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 35 percent of people aged 18 to 24 show signs of some kind of mental disorder.
The most prominent forms of illness in college-aged people, according to the study, are related to drug and alcohol dependence. Phobias and severe depressions are also relatively common among this age group. More distressing, however, are signs that these kinds of problems are on the rise. According to the results of another NIMH study, the number of suicides among college-aged Americans has tripled in the last 25 years alone. Experts say the reason behind the increasingly high rate of mental disorders among young people are still unclear.
UHS Seeing More Students
"Homes are much less stable than they used to be," says Dr. Randolph Catlin, chief of the Harvard University Mental Health Services. "The increasing divorce rate and instability in the family has, I'm sure, a lot to do with it." Catlin, who directs the clinic on the third floor of the University Health Services (UHS) in Holyoke Center, says that the more materialistic values which prevail today might be a cause of increasing psychological problems. "In the last few years there's been increasing emphasis on responsibility" which leads to increasing stress, the UHS counselor says.
Undergraduate use of the clinic's counseling services has been consistently growing through the years, according to Catlin. He says that the relatively calm political climate of the past decade has spawned the increase in the number of Harvard students seeking counseling. "In the '60s people could deal with their problems by externalizing them," Catlin says, "I know that here in the '60s, when there was a lot of activity, we had very little business. Activity is the antidote to anxiety."
"That alternative does not exist today. It is very hard to place the sources for [student] anxiety outside," says John Marquand, senior tutor of Dudley House. Marquand, along with other senior tutors and undergraduate advisors, says he keeps in close contact with the staff at UHS when dealing with students' problems.
An assistant dean of the college who started teaching at Harvard in 1965, Marquand says that he often finds students too wrapped up with their future plans. "In general, an anxiety about the future combined with academic anxiety and pressure" often puts too much strain on undergraduates, nothing that this particularly stresses freshmen and seniors. He says he refers about two students a week to UHS for professional counselling when their problems seem to be more serious.
Determining whether a student is just having a normal overload of work or whether there is something inherently more serious bothering someone is often like splitting hairs. According to Douglas H. Powell, a psychologist at UHS, certain personality changes can indicate that a person is suffering from a real psychological problem.
Powell says that when interviewing a person "the first thing you want to determine is what a normal state is" and whether the person "gets some kind of pleasure from family, friends, and acquaintances."
One of the earliest signals that a person's social adjustment is deteriorating is a dramatic change in sleep patterns, he says. Another sure sign of a mental problem is when "things that you used to do for relaxation become a necessary part of the day; you have to drink or you have to smoke pot."
"Often there is a loss of a sense of humor as your adjustment deteriorates," says Powell, who has just written a soon-to-be released book called Teenagers: When to Worry and What to Do. The psychologist-turned-author says that experiencing these kinds of changes can be very frightening. Powell suggests that a person who finds himself in this sort of situation consider talking to someone at Harvard's mental health services.
The Mental Health Folks
The mental health clinic at UHS has a staff of five psychiatrists, five psychologists, and a number of social workers who coordinate various other programs. Last year, the mental health clinic received about 3000 visits from 750 undergraduates, Catlin says. Most visits are made by appointment, but there is also a walk-in service and a psychologist always on call.
The staff works with and advises a wide variety of other organizations in the Harvard community like the Bureau of Study Counsel and the Freshmen Dean's Office. UHS also supports and supervises various peer counseling groups on campus such as Room 13 and Peer Contraceptive Counseling.
Groups like these are extremely helpful in providing outreach and more casual counseling for students, says Catlin. "They deal with an awful lot of things--roommates, drugs, depression. They're often able to be very supportive," he says.
The biggest problem facing campus counseling groups is reaching those students who are having problems, but who will not seek help. The peer counseling services frequently act as an intermediate step for students who do not want to go see a psychologist. Marquand says that Room 13 "was founded, in part, because students were having trouble trusting established institutional arrangements."
Other organizations, like the Writing Center and the Bureau of Study Counsel, focus on other student problems, although they frequently integrate personal counseling with academic advising. "You can't strictly separate a person's learning concerns from the other parts of a student's life," says Mack I. Davis, III, the acting director of the Bureau of Study Counsel. Davis says that the bureau's nine staff members all have some type of psychological training.
Other counseling services, in addition to dorm proctors and advisors, often feed into UHS when they cannot provide adequate service. Catlin says, "We can help them sort [which cases] sound to be more ominous."
More Serious Treatment
A student will have to be taken to a psychiatric hospital in Cambridge, Catlin says, about 10 times a year. The majority of cases are less serious.
Ivy League students' high expectations often contribute to the disappointment they feel when they come to college, Catlin adds. "If their sources of self-esteem are narrowed, then you have conditions for suicide." Harvard has up to four suicides a year, according to Catlin. One student has taken his own life this year, while two committed suicide last year. Catlin says that persons who are considering suicide often give clues about their emotional state, as when "people start talking about dying, start giving away their possessions."
Other less serious cases of psychological treatment involve more common sources of anxiety. "I not infrequently see people here who feel that they're a burden to their parents," Catlin says. "The kids don't realize, they're learning a lot about life."
"I think it's very important for young people to feel involved in a community," Marquand adds. "I think if you expect of people strength, you'll find strength."