Junior Lauren Paidas has struggled with anxiety since fifth grade and depression since her first year of high school, but nothing could prepare her for what she experienced the spring semester of her first-year at Fairfield University.
“Freshman year, spring semester, I entered into one of my ‘dips’, which is a time when I experience consistent depression that goes for a long time, and I know I’m in pretty much the worst state I’ve ever been in,” said Paidas. “When this happens, it’s a struggle to get to class or even to go and get lunch with friends.”
But this time was different for the then 18-year-old. School was becoming more of a hindrance than a help and being away from home, even after already making it through an entire semester, was making it worse.
“It was probably the most difficult decision I ever made,” Paidas continued, “to decide if I should leave school or not to receive more intense therapy… My parents and I discussed that it was the best thing for me to leave school. The hardest things were leaving my friends and knowing I would not get credit for all of my five classes.”
Paidas is hardly the first college student to struggle with mental health. Research reported by The Conversation shows that, as of 2018, 1 in 5 college students have anxiety or depression. Meanwhile the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 1 in 5 adults are diagnosed with any mental illness and three quarters of diagnoses for chronic mental illness occur before the college graduation age of 24.
However, these figures are even more pronounced on the Fairfield University campus. In the past month, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health 2017-18 and Association of University College Counseling Center Director’s Survey reported that, while the national average of students using school Counseling & Psychological Services is around 10 percent, Fairfield University Counseling and Psychological Services has now reported that 16.4 percent of Fairfield students use their services.
The “Common presenting issues [at colleges throughout the United States] were depression, relationship problems and generalized anxiety,” NAMI reported. A Fairfield University Counseling Center survey revealed that these are also the top reasons for Fairfield student use of their own services.
Senior Katrina Kirchgaesser is a psychology major who plans on helping children with her future psychology degree. She is also the vice president of the Fairfield chapter of NAMI and has had many opportunities to see the stigma against mental health struggles through these interests.
“It is crazy how people are so forthcoming about physical ailments such as a twisted ankle
or a bad cold but will go through extreme lengths to hide any sign of mental health
struggles,” said Kirchgaesser. “Students have no issue telling their friends they are going to the Dolan Health Clinic [Student Health Center] to get a check-up but would never admit they are also visiting the mental health services for their weekly therapy appointment.”
One student, who chose to remain unnamed, has also struggled with mental health throughout her life, but the stigmas surrounding mental health have prevented her from telling her friends.
“My parents know, my sister does, but I keep the rest to myself,” said the sophomore. “I don’t want [my friends] to have pre-judgements about me, or them to think a different way about me. I went through a lot of things when I was in middle and high school and I am a much better person today than I was then, and them knowing certain things about me back then, I don’t want that to negatively impact how they view me today.”
This stigma is one that exists throughout the United States, with NAMI reporting that there is a correlation between the amount of students enrolling in colleges across the country and the use of college counseling centers.
Susan Birge, EdD, MS, LPC, is the associate vice president for Health and Wellness and one of the most long-term advocates for improving student mental health at Fairfield University. She theorizes that this rise in Counseling Center utilization is due to a decrease in stigma. One which makes students feel more comfortable reaching out for help and leads to professors, teachers and coaches guiding students to Counseling when students show symptoms of mental struggles.
“[Mental health] is actually being perceived, not only with less stigma, but actually greater help. Good mental health is realizing ‘If I need tutoring, I get a tutor. If I’m sick, I go to the health center. If I’m struggling with an emotion, I go to Counseling,’” said Birge. “So, that’s good. Stigma is reduced. The other thing is that… with more information about mental health out there, students, parents, professors are more aware and will guide and refer people to get help…”
Birge further expressed that this development is especially necessary and good to see due to the times we live in. She said that some are calling the current generation of college students the “massacre” generation.
“You guys are aware and have lived through school shootings, massacres in theatres and malls,” said Birge. “By the very experience of the news coming in and you being so aware of it, you have to understand anxiety is heightened. How could it not be? Going to school used to be safe. And now that security is shattered, so we’re getting more awareness in that regard.”
Senior Katelyn Jones, who has supported numerous family and friends who struggle with mental illness and has fought against anxiety herself, agrees.
“I definitely believe that the recent tragedies affect how students our age feel,” said Jones. “I have not necessarily seen it affect the decisions that I make, but I definitely think that our generation as a whole is much more careful about who they talk to or how they act around people they don’t know, which could induce anxiety. I think the tragedies have made us more cautious about things in general.”