Brendan has been attending college for over six years, in which time he has seen his school grades plummet from all A’s to C’s and F’s. He has attended five different colleges, lost important relationships, spent extended periods of time in complete isolation, been diagnosed with learning disabilities, developed drug addictions, and felt moments of heightened motivation followed by overwhelming desperation.

“You do it to yourself, you and nothing else,” Brendan said with a timid smile. “You can try and make as many excuses as you want about how hard school is and how overwhelming the pressures are but so what, it’s the same thing for every one else, isn’t it?”

Welcome to the dark and cheerless world of anxiety and depression brought on by the stress of college life that a number of students find themselves in and cannot get out of. According to the National Mental Health Association, over 10 percent of college students have been diagnosed with depression and almost 7 percent reported experiencing anxiety disorders. They report that only 8 million of the 54 million Americans affected by one or more mental disorders every year actually seek treatment.

Brendan, a Fairfield University student who asked that his real name not be used, is not alone here on campus. According to Dr. Elise Harrison, Psychological Counselor at Fairfield University’s Counseling Services, the average college therapy office will see about 9 percent of the student body. Last year the Fairfield University office saw 13.9 percent of its students.

“On a college campus people end up coming to see us because there are parts and times in their lives were the pressure is more intense. And they say ‘I am realizing I am not functioning well,'” said Harrison.

Stress can be related to academics, adjustments, negotiating of new places, time management, career worries, learning disabilities, image consciousness, homesickness, relationship issues and an infinite variety of other issues that people suffering from depression and anxiety view in terribly serious and life or death terms.

“My day would begin with being anxious about whatever the first thing I had to do in the morning was, and would remain throughout the day from task to task, moment to moment until the day was over, without any relief, after a while that can become pretty depressing ” Brendan said in a tone that suggested a hint of remorse about his college career. “It’s not as if the effort to do well wasn’t there. I put in the time but never got any results.”

Depression, students like Brendan feel, can be persistent, changing the way they think, ability to perform, and physical health. Losing a significant other, a breakup in a relationship, or poor grades in a class causes feelings of sadness, but sadness is not depression. When events lead to a depressed state that is accompanied with long-term feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and a loss of self-esteem, a student might consider treatment as an option.

“Often times, people can work through the ups and downs their own way,” said Harrison. “When these feelings (depression and anxiety) last two weeks or more then there may be some kind of clinical problem.”

For people in their late teens and early 20’s depression and anxiety disorders are not necessarily directly linked to school-related stress, although often times it can exacerbate them, said Harrison, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has been with the University’s Counseling Services for nine years.

Hereditary causes and lack of experiences that tend to bring on cases of either situational or manic depression can often go undiscovered, misdiagnosed, or undeveloped before students arrive to college.

“There are many psychological issues that develop right around this age,” Harrison says.

College students are bound to feel the stress from the demands of college life at some point, but many have a difficult time recognizing when there might be a more serious problem. While professors, on the look out for tell signs of anxiety disorder or depression, have a tough time crossing the line between steadfast teacher and concerned individual.

“We need to be very sensitive to student’s stress and anxiety,” said Dr. W. Ronald Salafia, from the Psychology Department. “I know of no specific policy about looking for signs…When I notice behavior that is erratic. If a student does well and then fails a few things I might say to them ‘This is unusual and it maybe a sign of what’s going on in your life and you might try talking to someone at counseling center or campus ministries. But without probing … I don’t counsel people but I advise students as part of the faculty.”

Harrison also explains there are a variety of reasons why students come to the counseling center.

“Usually we find that men will come in with a more tangible and specific reason, while women may have just general feelings of being down,” she says. “A lot of people come in because they find they are not getting to sleep at night, they’re not going to class, isolating themselves from other people, constantly feeling overwhelmed with trouble concentrating, or their motivation might change drastically.”

For Harrison, the link between anxiety and depression is that the same medications generally work for both. She believes that stress can often crossover into all parts of a person’s life.

“Different people have various forms of anxiety that are all treatable,” she says.

For college-aged students, the idea of treating depression or anxiety through prescription drugs can easily become complicated when they live in a world surrounded by recreational drug use.

“(Marijuana) became a mainstay in my life probably because I needed some sort of a break from my emotions. I wasn’t really just hanging out with everyone else anymore as much as I was just engaging in this ritual of self-medication,” said Brendan, who, according to Harrison, is not the only student to react this way.

“In general people who experience all levels of depression find release in drugs and alcohol. But this ends up contributing more to the depression,” she says.

Living in a drug-abusive culture can cause many to become apprehensive about seeking help or the possibility of prescribed medication.

“The media has created this idea that if there is anything wrong with you there is a way to fix it with a pill. You can just take something so you will feel better and get through this,” she said. “Especially in this area (Fairfield County) there is this pressure to keep functioning and achieving and if need be take a pill to keep yourself on the treadmill…sometimes medication is used to keep people’s function going even when they are at a time when they should just be reassessing their lives.”

“I always had this feeling that what ever it is I felt I had to pull myself up by the boot straps and get through it,” says Brendan “A kind of ‘whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’ idea.”

“There is this stigma about how if you feel a certain way then you are weak and you should be able to walk it off,” says Harrison. “Some feel uncomfortable because this is such a small community … there is this sensitivity to ‘what will people think of me?'”

In her past nine years Harrison has seen many more students than before, many of whom have already had experience with some type of therapy.

“People are much more open,” she says. “There is less of a stigma. The biggest barrier is the feeling of hopelessness that people have. For them they don’t think of therapy as an option because only they will be able to figure it out. The feeling that nothing can help me anyway.”

For Brendan the decision to talk to a counselor was difficult and long overdue

“I came to the conclusion that this isn’t what life is supposed to be like. In a way it’s almost unfair. Why should I have to live like this? I know I’m a bright person and a nice guy. Why not see what someone else thinks? It’s not like it can hurt.”

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