The college mental health epidemic: Different routes to hope and healing






Julia Barton was in ninth grade when she decided to kill herself.

“I got a gun out of my dad’s gun cabinet, and I loaded it,” Barton said. “And I put it in my mouth as I sat on the back deck. And, for whatever reason, I couldn’t do it.”

Barton (senior-journalism) is one of thousands of Penn State students struggling with their mental health. According to Active Minds, nearly 26 percent of Americans 18 years and older live with a diagnosable mental illness.

There were over 41,000 undergraduate students enrolled at Penn State University Park last academic year, according to Penn State undergraduate admissions. This means, statistically, about 10,000 students walking around campus every day are dealing with their own inner demons.

According to Penn State Student Affairs, Penn State Counseling and Psychological Services treats around 2,500 students during an entire academic year. The other 7,500 students find other avenues to cope.

Julia’s Journey

“I had always known that I was different than everyone else,” Barton said, “in the simple fact that from the first day I got on the bus to the last day of senior year, I was picked on.”

As the years ticked on, the mistreatment became harsher. Verbal slurs became physical assaults — a head slammed into the bus window, a backpack and its contents thrown down the center aisle.

Things got better for a while, but everything “crashed” when she was in ninth grade.

Her two older sisters, Jessica and Jennifer, were suffering in their romantic relationships. One night, Julia found Jennifer in the bathroom, bloodied and bruised, after her boyfriend threw her down a flight of steps. She was sworn to secrecy — another burden to carry in silence.

Her parents were fighting more than usual. A close friend whom she had dated off and on, Ethan, had decided to end the friendship completely. And her three best friends posted on her Facebook wall, telling her that they were never her friends, “and that I should do the world a favor, and I should kill myself,” Barton said.

“At one point, I was so depressed and carrying around so much burden that I decided that I was going to try to kill myself,” Barton said. “I just couldn’t live with these things anymore.”

In the days and weeks after she walked back inside and put the gun away, Barton became what she called an “eraser” — rubbing the skin off of her arms, legs and back. She continued this for years, she said, even when she first chose to seek professional help at the age of 16.

“I wouldn’t wish anxiety and depression on my worst enemy because it’s such a debilitating thing,” Barton said.

She was put on medication but immediately dealt with one of its common side effects — inability to sleep. She persevered, but after her therapist fell asleep in the middle of a session, Barton decided that she was done reaching out for help and would face her problems on her own.

She took herself off her medication and turned to other coping mechanisms instead, like journaling.

It wasn’t until Barton’s junior year of college, after transferring to Penn State from a community college, that she felt ready to seek professional help again.

It took Barton two more therapists, two trips to CAPS and another prescription to make it to where she is today. While she says she never found individual therapy particularly helpful, a group mindfulness class through CAPS made all the difference.

“I finally felt like someone was hearing me and hearing me for the first time,” Barton said.

Barton said she still practices the mindfulness she learned through the class, using essential oils and journaling to help tame the remainder of her mental illness.

Living with post-traumatic stress

Olivia Welsh was first sexually assaulted when she was 15 years old.

“I thought I had been doing the right thing, so I felt really guilty about the whole thing,” Welsh (junior-immunology and infectious diseases) said. “I thought it was my fault.”

Her thoughts gnawed at her for over a month until she broke down and told her best friend’s mom. She told Welsh that if she didn’t tell her parents before the end of the week, she would do it herself. Welsh had no other choice but to tell her parents the secret she had held for so long.

When her parents found out, they pushed her to seek therapy. After three or four different therapists, she settled into one, but wasn’t truly happy with the help she was receiving.

“I kind of realized that I didn’t like what was going on,” Welsh said. “So, I told her what she wanted to hear, and then I was just released from her after a few months.”

While she experienced bouts of depression over the years, it all came to a head during the winter of her sophomore year of college. She was struggling with the residual effects of continued sexual assaults and relationship violence and was offered immediate help when she reported them to the university.

Once paired with a therapist at CAPS, Welsh was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Because sexual assault and relationship violence fall into CAPS’ crisis services, she has been offered unlimited sessions with her therapist and has continued working with her throughout the summer and fall semesters.




























While Welsh said the first therapists did not work out, finding one that worked for her has changed her life.

“Now I am a complete advocate for people who want to go and seek help,” Welsh said. “If you do find the right person to work with you and go through the right type of counseling and therapy, it can be incredibly monumental to your own mental health, how you view the world and how you go about living your life day to day.”

Ways to help

Mental health issues are on the rise for college students, and Penn State is not immune to the increase. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s 2016 report, Penn State and 138 other colleges and universities around the nation saw a total of nearly 50,000 more patients in the 2015-2016 school year than the previous one.

“Penn State follows the national trends for mental health issues,” Katharine Staley, assistant director at CAPS, said.

CAPS offers multiple types of treatment, which have been significantly increased in the past six months, according to Staley. Perhaps the most well-known is individual therapy, which is usually given on a first-come, first-serve basis, but can be accessed immediately in crisis situations.

CAPS also offers over 20 different groups and clinics on topics like anxiety, stress management and perfectionism. The new WellTrack app, as well as online therapy, allows students to seek help without confrontation and in an environment that is most comfortable to them.

“We really wanted to empower students to be able to seek the kinds of help that works best for them,” Staley said.

At Penn State and the other 138 institutions of higher education, “rapid-access” care, such as crisis or on-call services, has increased by 28 percent over the last six years, while routine care has declined by 7 percent. Nearly 50 percent of patients had only one visit before dropping out of the program.

“We don’t consider it one or the other, we’re trying to do both,” Staley said.

While they attempt to do both, Staley said, “We are a short-term agency, and we are very clear with our ability to provide that.” Students in individual, non-crisis therapy are allowed 6 free sessions and up to three more for a $15 fee. After that, students must transition to another type of therapy or search for a practice with openings downtown.

If one is disinterested in seeking help with CAPS or practices in State College, there are plenty of other options. Self-help books and videos can be found in abundance, and new services like “Shine Text” deliver daily advice via text messages.

Like Barton and Welsh, thousands of Penn State students are living with mental illnesses right now. The road to hope and healing is often a winding one, but students are doing what they can to make it work.

“It’s not that I don’t think it’s a disability,” Barton said. “It’s that I don’t want it to be a disability that defines me.”

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