An increased amount of college freshmen reported feelings of depression in 2014, according to a study released Feb. 5 by the University of California in Los Angeles.
The Cooperative Research Program at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute surveyed more than 150,000 students at 343 four-year colleges and universities as part of the study, inviting any of 1,583 institutions in the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System to submit their data. The results showed that in the past five years, respondents who reported feeling depressed rose from 6.1 to 9.5 percent. Those who felt overwhelmed with schoolwork and extracurricular commitments jumped from 27.1 percent to 34.6 percent.
Kevin Eagan, the lead author of the study, said that the increased stress while applying to colleges often spills over into anxiety during the first year of college.
“Students may be getting the message that they have to take the last year of high school more serious to get into college, so they’re coming in with greater levels of anxiety,” Eagan told The New York Times. “There may need to be a balance that students need to have at some point.”
Georgetown was not one of the schools included in the study, and Counseling and Psychiatric Services Director Phil Meilman could not provide data related to depression for freshmen on campus.
Meilman explained, however, that the results are still relevant to the mental health of Georgetown students, who experience similar trials in their freshman year.
“Georgetown did not participate in the study you cite, and so there is no data for comparison,” Meilman wrote in an email. “However, we know from that study’s result and also from the National College Health Assessment nationwide survey that many students may experience significant periods of distress during their college careers.”
According to the National College Health Assessment in the fall of 2011, in which Georgetown participated, 30.3 percent of college students reported that they “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”
Meilman added that adjusting to the college life is a challenge for many freshmen.
“Fitting in, making friends, learning how to navigate the social environment and learning how to take tests and write papers on the collegiate level are just a few of the significant challenges first year students face,” he wrote.
Libbi Ethier (COL ’16), a 2015 New Student Orientation Coordinator, echoed Meilman, explaining that the first six weeks during a first year student’s time at college are crucial to their mental health.
“This is the time when students are most vulnerable to the challenges associated with college life such as mental illness, academic pressure and anxiety, sexual assault, alcohol abuse, among other college stressors,” she wrote in an email.
Ben Saunders (SFS ’15), a cofounder of Active Minds, an organization on campus that fights the stigma surrounding mental health, believes that college has become extremely competitive, contributing to mental health issues.
“It’s very easy to fall into feeling that you’re not as good as others, that you’re not worth the school,” he said. “I’m sure everyone at Georgetown’s had that at some point.”
Meilman pointed to Georgetown’s range of mental health resources, citing chaplains-in-residence, the Academic Resource Center and CAPS among them, adding that CAPS sees over 10,000 student visits every year.
“At CAPS, we can help students look at their personal issues and how those may be interfering with academics,” Meilman wrote. “We see close to ten percent of the student body each year, and we have after-hours emergency consultation available, if needed.”
However, student experiences with CAPS have been mixed.
Saunders had a positive experience with CAPS when he sought help from the organization during fall of his junior year after feeling depressive symptoms. He began regular treatment and eventually met with psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Dela Luna.
“I honestly credit [him] probably with me being able to stay at Georgetown,” he said. “A lot of people benefit from CAPS. It’s a service that offered and is really useful. It was to me.”
Though his experience was positive, Saunders recognized areas where CAPS needs improvement, such as with follow-up appointments, the financial misconceptions of students and understaffing.
Regarding these bad experiences, Saunders said that sometimes students do not find the right practitioner to meet their needs and become discouraged with CAPS as a whole.
Ethier also noted this miscommunication as a place for improvement with CAPS, particularly related to first years.
“It is crucial to have one professional that you can trust who is willing to help you the whole way through; therefore, without that long-term relationship with someone from CAPS, it is significantly more difficult to recover your own mental health at Georgetown,” she wrote. “Having CAPS play an active role in making sure students who are struggling have a resource to help them would make Georgetown a less overwhelming and safer place for our new students.”
Saunders said he is not surprised with UCLA’s findings but sees it as a sign that maybe more students are seeking help.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “I want to think that what we’re doing, as far as trying to spread the conversation, trying to create a more open campus to seeking help, is benefitting freshmen. The fact that probably more freshmen are reaching out – I think that’s good.”