As Georgetown students, we pride ourselves on being accepting of all those who study and work at our school. To most students, the days of widespread institutional racism, classism, and heterosexism are gone. Bureaucracies have been established, policies enacted, and we all live thinking that justice has overcome bigotry. And, in many ways, it has—when I’ve encountered racism, it has been with my distant, parochial relatives, not with my classmates at Georgetown. But while students would camp out in Red Square, stage protests, and hold rallies against a racial or social injustice on campus, no one will venture to openly discuss issues of mental illness.
There is a pernicious attitude on campus that Georgetown students—bright, well-rounded, and healthy—are immune to mental illness. Ask any of your friends if they know someone who struggles with mental health, I doubt that any of them would say yes. This, in itself, is damaging. Mental illness affects 46% of Americans at some point in their lives, and according to the National Alliance on Mental Issues, depression alone affects one third of college students in any given year. One in four contemplate suicide.
For most sufferers,college is the first time in their lives that mental illness seriously develops. At home, teenagers generally have stable lives—eating well, sleeping well, avoiding drugs, and coping with stress. When freshmen come to college, these support mechanisms diminish or disappear entirely. Students maintain poor sleep schedules, are less controlled in their experimentation with drugs, and experience new stresses—instead of dealing with algebra and relationship troubles, students struggle to fit in and keep a budget, and worry about making it in the real world. Approximately half of students nationwide report not receiving an education from either their parents or their college about issues of mental health. As far as this type of education at Georgetown, all I can remember is receiving a little sheet of paper about Counseling and Psychiatric Services in a folder filled with similar pieces of information, and an assurance from the College Dean’s Office that they’re here for us when we need to talk.
The problem clearly exists, but many at Georgetown refuse to acknowledge it. There are students here that struggle with mental illness, yet whenever someone acts dejected and alone, people seem more ready to blame the victim than to reach out to help. Though the number of adults who would say that depression is at least in part due to a flaw in character has decreased over the past twenty years (around 70 percent in the 1990s versus 20 percent in 2010), around half of adults would feel uncomfortable dating someone dealing with depression, and 23 percent reported that they would feel embarrassed telling someone that they were diagnosed with depression. I suspect the true number, or at least the number at Georgetown, would be much higher.
And while the stigma seems to be diminishing—at least in opinion polling, where people know what the pollster wants them to say—the issue itself is only getting worse. Last year, Stony Brook University hospitalized three students in three days around final exam period for psychiatric reasons. All across the country, university mental health centers are reporting steady increases in the number of students coming in for serious mental issues like lifelong psychological trauma, eating disorders, self-injury, and suicide attempts. In days past, such centers largely dealt with coming-of-age crises and the aftermath of messy breakups. Now, 44 percent of existing cases involve serious mental illness, up from 16 percent in 2000. Yet while the numbers grow, the university mental health systems established in decades past generally have not grown to meet new demand. Although at Georgetown, appointments can be scheduled within three days, some colleges have waiting lists weeks long.
The upward trend in the prevalence of mental illness in college students mirrors the trend in the general population, but other factors are likely at work. It could possibly be only that more problems are being recognized and treated, but experts say that, in part, the new prevalence of prescription drugs has allowed students to go to college who wouldn’t have been able to a decade before. However, the most convincing factor is the rise of social networking. Despite Zuckerburg’s insistence that Facebook is bringing the world together, contemporary culture’s focus on online communication often serves to isolate. Instead of security in their community and friends, Facebook users can feel scrutinized by anyone at any time, damaging sense of community and sense of self.
While everyone experiences mental difficulties in college, mental illness is just that—an illness. We at Georgetown need to realize that no one chooses to be depressed any more than someone chooses to be tall. Then, maybe people who are coping with mental illness would be more willing to seek help from their mentors and their peers.