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For those who need help: call the Maine Suicide Prevention Program’s toll-free crisis hotline at 1-888-568-1112 or nationwide at 1-800-273-TALK or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University. This was written for The Baltimore Sun.
Just before final exams last month, I sent a private chat to one of my students during a class Zoom meeting. He hadn’t handed in any assignments this semester and was attending class meetings sporadically, at best. He responded: “I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch this semester. … I’ve been in a dark place and wanted to end things.” I gave him my mobile number and asked him to call me after class. He assured me that he wouldn’t “do anything extreme” at this point, because he was “feeling better.” After our conversation, I sent him the counseling center email, a suicide hotline number and pleaded with him to share his struggles with his parents and to set up a counseling appointment.
This student isn’t an anomaly. He’s one of an exploding number who recently inspired an administrator at my university to send out a faculty survey that asked if freshmen were in danger of failing and were crumbling beneath overwhelming mental illness.
Check and check.
What I’ve been learning over the past year is that it’s not enough just to teach anymore — not when we’re experiencing a mental illness epidemic among young adults. College educators need training in how to recognize mental illness symptoms in our students, to point them toward services they sorely need and to re-imagine what teaching in an era of epidemic mental illness needs to look like.
For a decade, we have witnessed spikes in anxiety and depression among millennials and Generation Z, but clearly the pandemic has amplified this epidemic. One study conducted at nine universities found that 35 percent of undergraduates and 32 percent of graduate and professional students suffered from major depressive disorder, while 39 percent of both populations experienced chronic anxiety. (These rates of depression are twice as high as they were in 2019, while anxiety levels are 1.5 times higher.)
And a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that 66 percent of young adults with less than a high school diploma were struggling with at least one adverse mental health symptom. Students of color, from low-income backgrounds, with LGBTQ+ identities and/or those who struggled with the pivot to online instruction suffer the most from these forms of mental illness. The same CDC study found that young adults ages 18 through 24 were the demographic group most likely to have suicidal thoughts — especially males.
If all of this were going to change with vaccinations, that would be great. But it won’t. A 2020 longitudinal study conducted by British researchers found that the mental health fallout from feelings of intense loneliness can last for up to nine years in children and adolescents.
For all of their best efforts, most college counseling and wellness centers aren’t keeping up with students’ needs during this epidemic. A survey of nearly 19,000 college students revealed that 60 percent of respondents felt that their schools weren’t providing the mental health care they needed and wanted. Of the 42 percent of students who sought care, 60 percent said it was difficult to access.
The Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, revealed that 63 percent of more than 2,000 college respondents gave their mental health service a “C” grade or lower for ease of accessing services and timely response for receiving help, among other complaints. Nearly half of these students insisted that they could have benefited from more mental health support from their college.
Obviously, most institutions of higher education need to better invest in and beef up their counseling centers. In the meantime, there are other options they and the rest of us can point students to that can proffer more immediate results.
Given that millennials and Generation Z are more likely to seek mental health care digitally, it makes sense to also point them in that direction. Talkspace and 7 Cups are two highly embraced apps where younger users can find online therapy sessions. Apps such as TalkLife offer peer support that’s immediate and sometimes better received. A 2019 meta-analysis found that such peer support apps won’t cure mental illness, but they can help take the unbearable edge off chronic stress, depression and anxiety.
Most urgently, peer support apps are a gateway into mental health help for users (especially young men) who prefer anonymity and a safe, nonjudgmental space where they can find something they need but lack — commiseration and connection. It’s crucial they know they aren’t alone in their suffering.
We don’t have to play therapist or have the “right” answer or solution for young adults to help them when they’re struggling. But we can help if we’re paying close attention to their needs, and if we know who can help them.