Depression and Anxiety in Colleges: Reasons and Suggested Solutions
by Hadj Babouhoun
It all started at the end of September 2019, exactly one month after moving into the dorms of the American University of Sharjah. In the beginning, I thought life at university would be comfortable and enjoyable since that is what I had been hearing during high school. However, I discovered that this was all a lie. One day, after returning from classes, I met my roommate in the entrance of the dorm acting very strangely. He was screaming and swearing; I was quite shocked as I have never seen him act this way. I assumed he must have had a fight with somebody. After this event, his attitude and personality started to change considerably, he became aggressive and grumpy. I noticed that he was not attending classes at all. He also started to stay up all night out of the dorm, and he only came back in the morning. Whenever I tried to cheer him up or advise him to take classes seriously, he would furiously ask me to mind my own business. I then decided to inform the supervisor about his troubling state. After he was examined by a psychiatrist at the university, I was very shocked and sad to hear that his psychological and mental health had deteriorated due to addiction to drugs and alcohol.
I knew he had never been addicted to drugs, so I wanted to find out what happened. I found out that his depression and anxiety resulted from losing his scholarships due to his low GPA. In fact, I discovered that these symptoms are very common among college students. According to statistics from The American College Health Association (2014), around 34.5% of university students in the U.S were feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function (as cited in Brown, 2016). This statistic shows that this alarming trend is spreading increasingly among college students and threatening students’ health and academic performance. In this paper, I discuss some common reasons that lead students to feeling overwhelmingly depressed and anxious. I will also suggest solutions universities can implement in order to alleviate this issue.
Although many people use the terms “depression” and “anxiety” interchangeably, there are some differences. According to the Nigerian Medical Journal, “[t]he term depression describes a wide range of emotional lows, from mere sadness to a pathological suicidal state” (Naushad et al., 2014, p. 156), which means that depression refers to the stability of sadness and low mood of a person. Anxiety is defined by the American Psychological Association as “[a]n emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure” (“Anxiety,” para. 1). Still, depression and anxiety are considered normal emotions which represent responses or reactions to current situations. However, instability with these emotions for a long period of time can lead the person to have mental health disorders. Severe depression and intense anxiety may result in negative impacts on students’ lives and their relationship with family and peers. There is consensus among psychiatrists that “anxiety and depression in young adults is a serious public health problem and a source of colossal human sufferings” (Saeed et al., 2018, p. 1291). Therefore, it is important to explore how these mental health issues are increasingly affecting college students, and what the numerous causes are.
What are the Common Causes of this Issue?
To begin, there are numerous factors and reasons that contribute to the prevalence of depression and anxiety among college students. First of all, financial stress is one of the common causes that leads students to depression. In fact, most college students who come from low or middle-income families are always concerned about how to pay tuition fees for the following semester, how to maintain their scholarships for the following year, or how to pay back the debts and loans in the future. These financial worries can make students anxious and unable to study at ease. This repetitive feeling from one semester to another makes students more likely to be exposed to depression as they become anxious about financial matters and their unpredictable future. This matches what Zhang and Tao (2013) conclude after conducting research on the relationship between the economic status of students’ families with depression: “the level of satisfaction with financial position and accommodation were important variables influencing student depression” (p. 906). Indeed, financial worries can lead these students to feel overwhelmingly anxious and depressed as they have no extra income or source of money to secure their life on campus. This may lead some students to look for part-time jobs, or to drop out of university for a short time in order to raise funds for the upcoming semester. Overall, financial stress is a leading cause of depression and anxiety among college students.
Another common reason that leads to a sharp increase in depression rates among college students is academic stress. Most students, if not all, work hard, aiming for excellent GPAs in order to secure a position in the competitive job market in the future. However, this is not an easy task to achieve. Students often have to pull “all nighters” throughout the semester just to complete homework and various projects assigned by their instructors. This overwhelming workload has negative effects on students mainly in the form of lack of sleep and anxiety from daily assignments. Also, during examination periods, students’ mental health worsens. As midterms and exams are essential determinants of final grades, students who happen to fail in these exams usually get depressed thinking of the possibility of failing the course. This may result in losing their self-esteem and their ability to concentrate on other courses. As Reddy (2018) outlines: “Incidences of depression were also found among stressful adolescents as it is linked with inability to concentrate, fear of failure, negative evaluation of future, etc.” (p. 532). This means that the academic pressure on students can easily cause their mental health to deteriorate. Also, Liu et al. (2019) demonstrate that depression rates among freshmen and sophomores are significantly higher than that in juniors and seniors (p. 1). These results can be justified in the difficulty of coping during transition from high school to university life. For example, since education between college and high school is quite distinct, some first-year students usually complain of the difficulty of their first semester. Thus, academic stress and fear of failure contribute greatly to the prevalence of depression and anxiety among college students.
Social problems, such as interactions with friends and peer groups as well as dating relationships are another leading factor that contribute to depression and anxiety in college students. Many college students, who often have more freedom in college, begin dating. However, relationships may end up in crisis or unexpected breakups, which in turn affect them mentally, emotionally, and psychologically. According to Stock and Levine (2016), “[a]t times breaking up is an illness: you can’t eat; you can’t sleep; you can’t think about anything but [your partner]” (p. 104). Coupled with the pressures of academic life, these terrible endings in relationships negatively affect students’ mental health.
Some of the common results among the severely-depressed are the poor academic performance and isolation (Stock & Levine, 2016, para, 9). This problem is related to introverted and isolated students who may get much more depressed from their isolation from the community. According to a survey conducted by the American College Health Association, of 48,000 college students, around 60% felt so lonely in the previous year that 12% of them considered taking their own life (as cited in Gordon, 2020, para. 2). These statistics show how the difficulty of making friends may lead college students to become depressed and anxious due to social relationships.
Consequences of Depression and Anxiety
Because of financial stresses, academic pressures, and social relationships, it is no surprise to find that these severe mental health disorders negatively affect students’ overall well-being. Although universities are attempting to create a fun and relaxing atmosphere for their own students through various programs and activities, “students[...]may talk of simply not finding anything fun or meaningful anymore in campus life” (Stock & Levine, 2016, p. 5).
Intensive depression and anxiety may lead students to further terrible consequences. According to the 2014 National College Health Assessment survey, two-thirds of participating students in the USA were addicted to alcohol throughout the prior year (as cited in Stock & Levine, 2014, p. 13). Not only does severe depression and anxiety lead college students to the use of drugs and alcohol as a way to deal with the stress they are facing, some college students might end up thinking of taking their own life. Naushad et al. (2014) states that, “[m]ajor depressive disorder is also found to be a leading cause of youth suicidal behavior and suicide” (p. 9). Thus, it is imperative for universities to track down this alarming issue and attempt to solve it.
There are various solutions that can be implemented by universities worldwide to help students overcome depression and anxiety. Many campuses offer services in which students can reach out to seek help such as counselling centers or university mental health centers where they provide students with efficient and helpful treatment (Bhujade, 2017; Brown, 2016, “Mental Health”). Also, since first-year students have the highest rates of depression and anxiety, most universities are trying to create orientation programs where students are informed about life on campus, student challenges, and health topics. Eva (2019) indicates that “colleges provide orientation sessions on drug and alcohol use, sexual violence prevention, and other student health and lifestyle topics” in which “students learn how to recognize mental illness symptoms, where to find resources and support, and how to talk to friends who might be struggling” (paras. 4-5).
Experts suggest solutions and innovative approaches that might be beneficial in addressing the well-being of students and supporting their mental health. First, one of the common suggestions is to provide students with a free course in mental health on how to take action in case they feel depressed or anxious. According to Lisa Smith, director of Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, “if students were given an Emotions 101 course in high school or college, they would be much better equipped to know how emotions work well versus what emotional coping strategies only serve to heighten anxiety and depression” (as cited in Brown, 2016, para. 13).
Another solution that is suggested and recommended is creating programs and workshops that aim to help students address their anxieties. For example, in 2014, the American University of Sharjah provided its students with a training workshop to help them understand the symptoms of depression and their coping mechanisms. Another example of creative ideas that are designed to assist students in dealing with mental health issues is scheduling certain days where students can receive free screenings for depression and anxiety, especially around exam times. According to Dori Hutchinson, director of services at Boston University’ Center of psychiatric and Rehabilitation, “[if] midterms are around the corner, and if someone is living with depression, it can worsen. The screenings are really a way for our community to say, we care about you” (as cited in Brown, 2016, para. 27). Therefore, we can see that there are several ways that universities can provide help to prevent or even treat severely-depressed students. However, these programs are still young and not fully developed. Universities must make a greater effort to alleviate the financial, transitional, social, and work-load anxieties that come with university life.
Depression and anxiety are serious issues among college students. It has been noted that the percentage of these alarming mental health problems is increasing considerably among college students due to certain factors such as financial stresses, academic pressures, and social problems. These factors are negatively impacting students academically, psychologically, and behaviorally. While universities are trying their best to provide sufficient assistance in order to secure the well-being of students, they sometimes overlook students such as my roommate. Facing similar challenges daily, I realize that the stereotype I had in high school, regarding the comfort and fun of university life, was in fact inaccurate. College students experience various challenges, and achieving success depends on adequate emotional and psychological support.
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