First in a three-part series
It would be difficult to tell that Victoria Turner suffers from an illness with just a glance. In fact, without actually talking to her, it would go completely unnoticed. The 20-year-old Lorain County Community College student has been struggling with two invisible illnesses for just over two years.
“I noticed I was going to school and felt fine through most of the day,” Turner said, “and kind of randomly in a class I would get this really weird feeling. I wouldn’t be able to breathe, almost like somebody was pushing on my chest.”
Turner was diagnosed with these illnesses in 2013, during her senior year in high school. These inflictions are known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Panic Disorder (PD). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), those diagnosed with GAD suffer from continuous worrying and become very anxious performing average, simple tasks. PD is characterized as having abrupt attacks of fear repeatedly, which can happen at any time, according to the NIH.
“GAD is kind of more broad term, it kind of is all-encompassing of anxiety,” Turner explained. “You have your daily anxiety of just random things….It’s like a consistent worrying. So, that’s what I experience,” she said. “Panic disorder is a little different. That’s where you get panic attacks just out of the blue. That’s what I experience, too. Sometimes they come on at the worst moment,” Turner commented.
These disorders are just a few of the myriad mental illnesses affecting college students. Mental illnesses can be defined as, “health conditions that are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior (or some combination thereof) associated with distress and/or impaired functioning,” according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC also reports that roughly 25 percent of adults living in the United States have a mental illness of some form.
On college campuses across the country, the rate of students being diagnosed with mental illnesses has been on a steady incline for almost 20 years. Specifically on campuses, “depressive symptoms, anxiety, eating disorders, and psychotic symptoms have doubled or tripled since the mid-1990s,” “Mind the Gap: Person-centered delivery of mental health information to post-secondary student,” an academic study published in Psychosocial Intervention journal, stated.
Entering college is a unique challenge, and the pressures affiliated with it are often too much to handle. Students who are diagnosed with a mental disorder are more likely to struggle academically. Amongst the college population, those with a mental illness have a higher probability of dropping out of college, according to the Active Minds website, a non-profit organization dedicated to the advocacy of young adult mental illnesses. 64 percent of survey respondents in a study from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported that they had dropped out of college due to a mental illness.
A 2015 study by the American College Health Association (ACHA) found that 40.7 percent of males and 49.8 percent of females found academics ‘traumatic or very difficult to handle’ over the last 12 months.
Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health conditions concerning college students. According to “The State of Mental Health on College Campuses,” an article published in Inquiry in 2012, incidents of reported anxiety rose by almost 60 percent while depression increased by more than 50 percent between 1988 and 2001. Other mental afflictions, like substance abuse, suicidal tendencies, and other persistent illnesses, also rose during this time, according to the article.
Nearly 1 in 6 college students have been treated for or diagnosed with anxiety in the last 12 months, as reported by the ACHA survey.
While anxiety has passed depression as the top diagnosis on campuses according to the New York Times, depression is close behind. The two conditions are often related, according to Quentin Kuntz, a crisis counselor on LCCC’s campus.
“Anxiety kind of lends itself to being in college,” Kuntz disclosed. “Because if you don’t do well or have issues that you can’t get to class, anxiety levels go up. But they (anxiety and depression) are so connected because obviously when people are depressed people are anxious and can’t control the anxiety, they often get depressed.”
Depression is characterized, not just by sadness, but by a lack of interest in things once considered enjoyable, insomnia or excessive sleep, trouble concentrating, lack of energy, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of death or suicide, per the American Psychological Association. It is more than just feeling ‘blue’ or ‘down’, which is a typical assumption. Depression can be lingering and can interfere with a person’s daily life. It can be caused by trauma, genetics, or other environmental factors, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
“Depression usually involves a very low rate of what’s called serotonin in your brain, which keeps us even-keeled,” Kuntz commented. “If people are abusing substances, are not eating, are sleeping all the time, the brain does not produce enough serotonin to help them out of that condition.”
Depression and anxiety conditions alone comprised almost 40 percent of students’ barriers to academic success within the last 12 months, a 2015 study from the American College Health Association found. The Active Minds website states that students diagnosed with a mental illness are more likely to be linked to lower GPAs, while the NAMI study also found that many respondents are not in college because their GPAs were too low. This, coupled with the fact that some students changed to part-time standing due to mental health or related issues, then caused them to lose scholarships and other financial aid.
“…they may be clinically depressed and flunking a class, or having trouble in class, [that] manifests itself a lot in depression,” Kuntz added.
For Turner, her anxiety and panic disorders dictate how she schedules her school year. “I rarely can do full time. That just gets too stressful, and that increases my anxiety,” she said. She also finds simply getting to class a very real battle.
“It can be challenging coming to school with anxiety,” Turner mentioned. “It’s a struggle to get out of bed sometimes. Maybe I’m not feeling like I’m going to have a panic attack, but I do feel almost empty,” she continued. “And when you think about, ‘What do I have to do today? I need to get out of bed,’ then that adds to the anxiety of it all… it’s definitely kind of double-ended. It’s like, I go to class but I’m anxious, but I’m really sad. And all I want to do is stay home and hide,” Turner said.
Turner said she does experience testing anxiety, but mainly she deals with social anxiety. “It can be testing, but I’ve noticed it is more social. Like a teacher is mean, or somebody says something, I tend to panic more over that,” she said. “So it is more social. Which makes it hard, because I think here, it’s a little bit harder to make friends anyway. But then I have a tendency to not want to do things because I’m just nervous about getting anxiety, Turner concluded.
While the exact cause of many mental illnesses remains unknown, the lives that many college students lead can be a considerable factor. Students are not only pressed with academic concerns. Many must make life-altering career decisions, juggle a full class schedule with a part-time or full-time job, face sexual orientation questions, and try to maintain personal relationships. It’s an impressive balancing act.
Turner stated that she hasn’t run into any major issues while a student at LCCC. “Most of the teachers are really understanding,” she said. However, she has had a few less than empathetic instructors on campus. “You do get some teachers who are like ‘I don’t understand why you need this…,’” Turner expressed. “So that can be a little bit tough because they don’t take it seriously.”
Struggling academically can not only be common for people with mental illnesses, it can also add to the effects of the condition. “…if somebody’s learning that their financial aid [is no longer offered], or they can no longer attend classes here because of a GPA, or they’ve flunked too many classes so they’re below the completion ratio, that can be devastating for somebody,” said Kuntz.
That students with a mental disability don’t always do well in classes can be extremely detrimental to life after college.
“…school’s my identity, so that’s where I find comfort. It’s something that I can put my heart into,” Turner added.
A lack of independence can also complicate things, commented Myra Kawaguchi, Ph.d. a clinical psychologist who practices privately at Allied Behavioral Health Services in Lorain. “Some students go to school without having a lot of experience making their own decisions, organizing their own time, prioritizing their time and efforts and that kind of thing, making sure they get enough sleep and eat right. A lot of people don’t know how to do that,” she stated.
The fact that a college degree has become such a necessary part of your success as an adult adds even more pressure to students to succeed scholastically.
“I think that it takes more and more education to aspire to a middle-class life.,” Kawaguchi said. “…it’s fair to say a college education is now becoming what a high school education was in the past. So more people need to go further in order to be moderately successful.”
College is often viewed as a transition – a phase between adolescence and adulthood. Teenagers are supposed to realize the kind of person they want to become and the kind of career they want to have. They acknowledge more adult-like responsibilities – decide on career paths; manage their own time; do their own laundry; cook meals for themselves; establish their own routines – all of this often for the first time. So it’s easy to understand why this phase can be an unstable one in a young person’s life.
“That’s the thing about depression and anxiety and mental illness, even,” Turner said. “Every day is different, every month is different and you’re always going through a little bit of a change.”