Harvard and other universities are working to improve counseling services at a time of increasing rates of mental health concerns nationwide.
An annual survey conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors indicates that rates of mental illness are rising, with anxiety surpassing depression as the most prevalent mental illness among students. In 2015, 47.4 percent of students who reporting seeking counseling services said anxiety was a primary mental health concern, while 40.2 percent reported depression as a concern.
According to the survey, students have increasingly used counseling services over the past few years, but universities across the country, including Harvard, are still encouraging students to seek help.
“Counseling centers are constantly going around trying to tell people, it is safe, we are confidential, we will protect your information, come on in, feel brave to be here,” Brian J. Krylowicz, counseling director at Springfield College, said. “It is incredibly challenging for any student to get the nerves to pick up the phone and make a phone call, or text, or walk into the site and say ‘I need to make an appointment.’”
“There are several myths surrounding mental health such as you are ‘weak’ or if you are depressed that you can just ‘snap out of it’,” Amy M. Lenhart, president of the American College Counseling Association, wrote in an email. “I think as a society we need to do a better job of educating people that seeking treatment for mental health is just as important as seeking treatment for physical health.”
A lack of diversity in mental health services has also surfaced as a factor that may prevent students from seeking counseling. In response, Harvard University Health Services supervised the creation of Indigo, a new peer counseling group created to specifically address issues of race and class.
David R. Reetz, a member of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors governing board, said he believes a counselor’s race and ethnic awareness is more important than his or her race itself.
“Race and culture always matters, it’s always a factor, it’s just that unfortunately, it’s more easily overlooked by those in the majority race,” Reetz said. “There is something powerfully healing about being understood from someone different from us.”
Beyond issues of access and usage of counseling services, mental health professionals attribute several factors to the increase in rates of anxiety, such as a greater awareness of threats like terrorism in the world and a decrease in personal interactions with people because of technology.
“We spend more time connected with our peers electronically, and less time connected with our peers physically,” Reetz said. “There’s some theories that suggest it’s the physical proximity to our friends and our social support that has sort of a calming effect on us.”
Krylowicz said social media usage can also propagate an increase in anxiety by normalizing unrealistic expectations.
“People on social media, they overwhelmingly put on positive aspects of their lives,” he said. “I think this adds to the competition, there is more of a regret when someone sees someone doing well.”
Krylowicz and Reetz both cited a shift in parenting as another potential cause for the increase in anxiety among college students. Krylowicz said with decreasing birth rates, parents are more present in their children’s lives.
“The helicopter parent concept, there’s a bad connotation,” Krylowicz said. “But you look at parents and I think they’re more caring, more involved, more active in their students lives.”
Reetz explained that children do not have as much unsupervised time as the previous generation and therefore have fewer opportunities to learn to resolve threats and fears without adult supervision.
“In that sense, the tools to manage those personal relationships, to manage those more difficult emotions aren’t as prevalent at an earlier age,” Reetz said. “So then when they come to college, for many it’s the first time they’re on their own.”
He said he also thinks Harvard students should reevaluate their approach to success once they arrive on campus.
“Success and failure are not opposite ends of continuum, but that success and failure really work in tandem toward our valued goals,” Reetz said. “Then we approach failure, we don’t pull back from it, we don’t run from it, we don’t avoid it, we don’t retreat, we don’t say things like “Wow, everyone else is succeeding, I’m failing, so this isn’t the place for me.’”
—Staff writer Menaka V. Narayanan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mnarayanan97.