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Why Are Today's Students So Anxious?

Fragments of graphic design students' posters relating to mental health

Karen Roehr, associate professor of art & design, gave graphic design students the assignment to create a poster on one of three subjects: opioid addiction, social media overuse or mental health. Their work is shown throughout this story.

09/06/2019
By Ed Brennen

SPEAKING TO 3,200 FIRST-YEAR STUDENTS at Convocation last September at the Tsongas Center, Student Government Association President Andre DiFilippo offered some advice that’s as sage today as ever: Work hard. Get involved. Make the most of your college experience, because it will be over before you know it. 

But there was another message woven into DiFilippo’s four-minute address, one tailored specifically for students of his generation: Be mindful of your mental well-being when things get tough, and be sure to watch out for others, too.

“Mental health is one of the biggest silent killers of our generation, and we cannot let it continue,” DiFilippo said, adding that it’s natural for students to ignore their problems or feel too ashamed to get help. “From one student to another, let me be the one to tell you that there are countless people at UMass Lowell—students, faculty and staff alike—who care and are here to support you.”

DiFilippo, a senior business administration major from Saugus, had done his homework on the topic. A year earlier, as chair of the student government’s academic affairs committee, he helped survey nearly 1,400 UML students on their college experience. DiFilippo analyzed the data and was surprised to see how many students were concerned about mental health issues, especially anxiety and depression. A common complaint was the wait time for a counseling appointment at the Wellness Center, which—like so many college clinics across the country—was facing an appointment backlog as it tried to keep pace with surging demand.

DiFilippo presented the survey findings to Chancellor Jacquie Moloney and her executive cabinet in January 2018, and their response was immediate. “We have to change this. It will get done,” DiFilippo recalls them saying. “It was awesome how they embraced it.”

Illustration of a brain, brain stem turns into a cord with a plug at the end, reads "Unplug from technology," poster by Alex Twyman
Poster design by: ALEX TWYMAN ’19, animation and interactive media major
UML IS HARDLY THE ONLY SCHOOL facing this challenge. Mental health issues have become an epidemic on college campuses across the country. According to a recent study by the American Psychiatric Association, the percentage of college students seeking mental health care has nearly doubled over the last decade, from 19 percent in 2007 to 34 percent in 2017. At UML, the number of students seeking counseling at the Wellness Center has jumped almost 30 percent over the past four years, from 637 in 2014-15 to 824 last year.

“The need for care is just huge, and we don’t expect it to go away,” says UML’s Director of Counseling Services Deborah Edelman-Blank, a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 15 years of experience on college campuses across the country.

To meet this growing need, the university boosted the number of counseling clinicians from four to seven at the Wellness Center. “It’s a big jump in terms of staffing and what we can offer,” Edelman-Blank says. “It’s not yet where I want us to be, but we’re up to a level where we can provide services that we couldn’t before, which is exciting.”

Those services include a new triage intake process to allow for same-day appointments. Now, students seeking help from Counseling Services for the first time can be seen right away for a half-hour screening. Depending on the severity of the concerns they present, students can either begin immediate treatment or be directed to individual or group therapy treatment.

“Sometimes,” Edelman-Blank says, “all they need is that same-day appointment. Just talking to someone can help them feel better.”

The university has also partnered with the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps colleges and universities assess and enhance their existing efforts around student mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention—starting with a web-based “Healthy Minds” survey that went out to 12,000 students in February.

Black and white closeup of an eye, iris is in color with reflection of a girl, reads "EVERYONE IS LOOKING AT ME," poster by Michelle Chan
Poster design by: MICHELLE CHAN ’21, graphic design major
“We know nationwide what the numbers look like, but what does it look like on our campus?” says Student Mental Health and Wellness Program Director Melissa Wall, campus liaison for Jed and an adjunct faculty member in the Psychology Department. “This will help provide the data to support what we know intuitively and anecdotally in our experiences.”

While depression used to be the leading reason why college students sought help from university counseling centers, it was surpassed by anxiety about five years ago, according to research by Penn State’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health.

“Anxiety is basically worrying about something that could happen, and depression is angst about something that has happened,” says Edelman-Blank, who notes that there are three major types of anxiety: generalized anxiety disorder (worrying so much that it impairs your ability to function); social anxiety disorder (avoiding groups and constantly worrying about what other people think about you); and panic disorder (becoming so anxious that you have a major physical response).

“It feels like a lion is coming toward you. It physically feels that scary,”

Edelman-Blank says.

In a 2018 American College Health Association survey of 88,000 college students nationwide, two in five described being so depressed they “struggled to function,” while three in five felt “overwhelming anxiety” during the previous year. Most alarmingly, 12 percent of students said they seriously considered suicide within the past year.

The numbers are tough to look at, but the suicide rate for people aged 10-19 increased by 56 percent between 2007 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2011, for the first time in three decades, suicide surpassed homicide as the second-leading cause of death for teenagers (after unintentional injury such as car crashes).

“In the past, the rates of mental illness have been relatively stable,” says Prof. Steve Balsis, who joined the Psychology Department last fall after previously serving as director of clinical training at Texas A&M. “Suicide, in particular, has been remarkably stable over time. To see those numbers change in a relatively dramatic way is scary. There’s really something happening here, and it’s happening in a way that’s being felt by a lot of people.”

Red poster with jumbled line drawing that reads "mental health." by Elias Awad
Poster design by: ELIAS AWAD, German exchange student
WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE? Why are today’s students so anxious? Are the pressures of college life—being away from home for the first time, academics, work, student loans, social life, relationships, career paths—that much different than they were, say, 30 years ago? And shouldn’t students expect some level of stress and anxiety in college? Doesn’t everyone worry about final exams? Or about finding their place in the world as young adults?

“Stress and anxiety themselves are healthy emotions that everybody experiences. We don’t expect people to have stress-free or anxiety-free lives,” Edelman-Blank says. “Healthy people get depressed and grieve. They have anxiety and may occasionally have a panic attack. But when you’re stressed or anxious to the point where you can’t function, can’t sleep, can’t eat, where you can’t go out with someone just to say hello, or you’re crying all the time, or you’re cutting yourself, that’s not just stress or anxiety from college. That’s disorder behavior.”

Zoom out for a moment. Today’s college students belong to Generation Z (or the iGen), born between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s. They came into the world right around 9/11. The global war on terror has always been a fact of life (some of them have signed up to fight it). Following the horrors of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and Parkland, they learned how to barricade their classroom doors during active shooter drills. They may have been too young to understand the Great Recession, climate change or the opioid crisis, but their parents and teachers sure sounded concerned. And politically, they’re coming of age in a country that feels more polarized than ever.

“We grew up in world that completely changed right before our eyes,” says Abby Colangelo, a senior Honors College student from West Boylston, Mass., majoring in exercise physiology and minoring in psychology. “And then you go to college and it’s a whole other change to adjust to.”

Colangelo didn’t adjust well. As a freshman, she was “an anxious mess,” she says. She started having panic attacks that made it difficult to go to class, let alone take a test. Her doctor eventually diagnosed her with an anxiety disorder. “It took me a long time to figure out what was happening, but I was able to turn it around,” Colangelo says. Thanks to her diagnosis, she received testing accommodations from Disability Services. “They were really good about helping me find a place where I was comfortable taking tests,” she says. “Disability Services was my saving grace.”

Through Counseling Services, Colangelo also connected with a social anxiety therapy group. “You walk around campus, and you feel like everyone around you is normal, that they don’t have issues,” she says. “It was really helpful to be in a room with people dealing with the same things.”

With that in mind, Counseling Services introduced several new group therapy options this spring, including a mindfulness and meditation group and a support group for international students, who face the added stressors of language and culture barriers in college.

“Individual counseling is still our bread and butter, but our hope is to make group therapy a primary offering,” says Edelman-Blank, who points out that one counseling clinician seeing 10 students at a time helps maximize resources. “And group sessions help in the context of addressing students’ isolation and loneliness, that lack of connection.”

But wait—aren’t students today more connected than ever? Thanks to smartphones and social media, don’t they have hundreds of friends and followers with whom they can interact anytime, anywhere?

“ When you’re stressed or anxious to the point where you can’t function, can’t sleep, can’t eat, where you can’t go out with someone just to say hello, or you’re crying all the time, or you’re cutting yourself, that’s not just stress or anxiety from college. That’s disorder behavior.” -Deborah Edelman-Blank, UML’s director of counseling services
PSYCHOTHERAPIST T.J. DINSMORE ’04 wishes that social media would have made a more gradual entrance into the world; that would have made it easier for parents, teachers and mental health professionals to understand and manage. Instead, it seemed to fall out of the sky around 15 years ago. Apple released the first iPhone in 2007, when most of today’s college students were in grade school, and a flurry of social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat soon followed. Experts agree it’s no coincidence that the rates of student anxiety and depression began to climb right around the same time.

Dinsmore, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UML and a master’s from Boston University, noticed the sudden change while interning at Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s student counseling center in 2011. “That was my first exposure to just how powerful social media platforms can be,” he says. While students were mostly on Facebook and Twitter at the time, Dinsmore says he could already see the dark side of social media taking hold, such as FOMO (fear of missing out).

“I noticed students looking at what other people were doing and comparing themselves to these idealized projections—the cool trips on weekends, having the right clothes or cars, posing the right way at Starbucks—and feeling like they’re not measuring up,” he says. “The trickle-down effect of that is that people can develop anxiety and depression symptoms. They start to see themselves negatively, and their self-esteem changes.”

Armed with the latest phones and social media apps, high school seniors today are less likely to hang out with friends, date and get their driver’s licenses, while they’re more likely to feel lonely and be sleep-deprived, according to the annual “Monitoring the Future” survey, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

As a school psychologist at Wakefield Memorial High School, Rebecca Gordon ’14 deals with the fallout from social media every day. “A lot of peer issues happen on social media overnight. Then the next day at school, so-and-so is really mad at so-and-so and talking about how awful they are,” says Gordon, who double-majored in psychology and fine arts at UML. “The problem with social media is that it oftentimes reinforces that negative behavior. It produces more anxiety or depressive feelings, or poor social skills.”

Balsis agrees.

“This influence of social media is what I think underlies this huge change in anxiety and depression in the last five to six years,” he says, noting that studies show girls are hit especially hard by social media pressures. He worries how it will affect his own 8-year-old daughter someday. “She doesn’t have a phone yet, and we’re going to resist that as long as possible,” he says.

Alice Frye, an assistant teaching professor of psychology, points out that smartphones and social media have their benefits, and adds that students are becoming more aware of their downsides. But she also has a strict no-device rule in her classes. “For most college-aged students, their brains are still developing. Their frontal lobes aren’t finished,” Frye says. “So the idea that they are spending so much time on social media interacting with something that isn’t actually a human being—that’s worrisome.”

Unfortunately, the social media genie is out of the bottle (and probably has a million followers on Twitter). “The best we can do is try to help people have a good relationship with it, kind of like with alcohol,” says Dinsmore, who’s had his own practice in Londonderry, N.H., since 2015. He encourages patients to be mindful of how much time they’re spending on their devices.

“When you are feeling that compulsion or impulse to pick up your phone, try to be aware of what was happening in your thoughts and emotions in the last half hour of your life,” he says. “Why were you feeling the need to pick up the phone and check Facebook or Instagram? A lot of times, if you really work with somebody and keep them on task with tracking this stuff, it’s usually because, ‘Well, I was lonely. I was kind of bored. Or something happened earlier in the day that made me angry or anxious, and I was looking for a distraction.’ So it’s almost like this tool that thwarts the natural emotional awareness process. People use it to numb, almost like a substance.”

“ Students can’t learn from failures if every failure is treated like the end of the world.” -Psychotherapist T.J. Dinsmore ’04
FACULTY MEMBERS CAN SEE the pressure on the faces of students, who can often struggle with resilience. “Some students are very, very hard on themselves,” says Frye, who points out that college has traditionally been a time when young people are given license to make mistakes and learn from failures. “But they can’t learn from those failures if every failure is treated like the end of the world. So it’s important to help students struggling with anxiety and depression, so they can take full advantage of the developmental trajectory that they’re in at this stage. And it’s our responsibility as faculty to be alert to that in our students.”

To that end, about 50 faculty members from across the university gathered on North Campus on a gray Friday afternoon last November for a two-hour workshop on “Helping Students in Distress.” Part of the Kennedy College of Sciences’ “Teaching and Learning Lunch Series,” the workshop was designed to help faculty members—who are experts in fields like mechanical engineering, finance and art history, but have little training in mental health—learn more about the issues facing today’s students.

Kate Legee, the university’s associate director of student conduct and prevention of violence, shared tips on how to recognize student distress (inability to focus, lack of motivation, flat affect) and how to talk with them (express empathy, deal with resistance, support self-efficacy). Faculty members also learned more about STARs (Students at Risk), the university’s behavioral intervention program.

College athletes, who face the added pressures of competition and maintaining their academic eligibility, are not immune from the epidemic. In fact, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, Brian Hainline, has declared mental health to be the No. 1 issue in college athletics. In May, UMass Lowell hosted the America East Conference’s fourth annual Health and Safety Summit, which focused on mental health.

Poster by Lesa Tran illustrating the warning signs of suicide
Poster design by: LESA TRAN ’20, graphic design major
In the College of Education, meanwhile, future teachers and school administrators are learning how to work with students struggling with things like anxiety or trauma. While issues like these used to be addressed by specialists outside of the classroom, Assoc. Prof. Phitsamay Uy says many states, including Massachusetts, are implementing social and emotional learning (SEL) into their curriculum standards, which teaches students life skills such as managing emotions and working through conflicts.

“Having social workers and psychologists in schools is great, but that’s the reactive end,” says Uy, who notes that teaching candidates are being trained to take a more proactive approach, “checking in with students as part of their daily class routine.”

Uy, whose research focus is on teaching diverse populations, says some students are surprised to discover how much more there is to teaching than coming up with lesson plans. “Sometimes they think, ‘My job is to teach math or history. What do I need to know about social emotional learning?’” Uy says. “But if a child is coming to you traumatized or emotionally unstable for any reason, they’re not ready to learn.”

FORTUNATELY, EXPERTS AGREE that anxiety and depression are both highly treatable. “They’re not things people have to plan to live with their whole lives,” Edelman-Blank says.

And the stigma around mental health issues, which DiFilippo addressed head-on during his Convocation address, also seems to be waning. “There is less of a stigma,” Dinsmore says, “but there’s definitely still a ways to go until it is seen in a more normalized way, like a medical condition such as diabetes.”

While Colangelo initially worried what others on campus might think about her anxiety disorder, she came to realize that “everyone has their stuff” they’re dealing with. “I’m not ashamed of it at all,” she says. “Now it’s my thing. I deal with it.”

In fact, it even spurred her to pursue a $1,000 honors fellowship to help Assoc. Prof. Ashleigh Hillier research the experiences of college students with depression, anxiety and other emotional and intellectual disabilities. After collecting and analyzing data from almost 200 students for more than a year, Colangelo presented her findings this spring for her Honors thesis.

“We’re hoping to find out more about what predicts anxiety among our students, and figure out where the campus might be able to best provide supports,” says Hillier, whose early findings show that students who feel less connected to campus, such as transfer students, report feeling higher levels of anxiety.

Colangelo, who will begin pursuing her master’s degree in exercise physiology at UML in the fall, is thankful she chose a school that provided her with the resources and opportunity to not only overcome her obstacles, but to thrive.

“As you grow up from freshman year to senior year, you realize everyone’s doing their own thing in college and has their own quirks,” she says. “Especially at a school like UMass Lowell, which is so big and so diverse, I feel it has such an accepting environment.”

It Takes A Village

UML takes a campus-wide approach to mental health awareness. Here are some of the programs and student groups that are here to help.
MentalHealthScreening

STARs: The UMass Lowell Behavioral Intervention Team

Faculty, staff and students who are worried about a student’s mental or physical well-being can submit an online referral to the university’s behavioral intervention team, called Students at Risk (STARs). A collaborative team made up of representatives from the Dean of Students’ Office, Student Health Services, the Counseling Center, Disability Services, Campus Conduct, EMS and the UML Police Department meets weekly during the academic year to discuss the referrals. Typically, someone from Student Affairs then reaches out to the student to check in and offer help.
A student spends time with a therapy dog on stress relief day

Healthy H.A.W.K.S.

Healthy H.A.W.K.S. (Health Advocate With Knowledge and Skills) is a volunteer student group that offers peer-to-peer health resources on topics like stress, sleep, substance abuse and sexual and reproductive health. They bring therapy dogs to campus for “Paws
to Play” events for students battling homesickness or stress, and they also host Stress Relief Fairs before finals each semester.
Ralph Saint Louis smiles while working out at the CRC Photo by Ed Brennen

Exercise is Medicine

A collaboration between Campus Recreation, the Wellness Center and the Exercise Physiology Department, Exercise is Medicine teaches students how exercise can improve their overall well-being by providing them with 16 personal training sessions—free of charge. Participants, who are usually referred to the program by Counseling Services, are paired with certified student trainers for personally tailored one-hour workouts at either the Campus Recreation Center or the Riverview Fitness Center.
UMass Lowell mascot, Rowdy the River Hawk holding out a post-it note that say "Always be yourself!"

UMatter2

UMatter2 is a campus initiative that works to empower the university community to be proactive about suicide prevention, mental health and overall wellness. With the motto "One Conversation Can Save a Life," the group is committed to the emotional well-being of the campus community.