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A Mental Game

Conquering the Issue of Mental Health on
College Campuses
By Gabrielle Ator

Madison Holleran was the epitome
of what every girl, young or old, wishes to
be: intelligent, beautiful, talented, kind, and
successful. The college freshman was a
member of the track and field team at the
esteemed University of Pennsylvania. She
excelled not only on the track as a runner,
but also in the classroom as a student.
During her first semester at the University of
Pennsylvania, she earned her way onto the
Dean’s List with a 3.5 grade point average.
Madison’s life appeared to be perfect. She
had a bright future ahead of her. That is, she
had a bright future ahead of her. On the
night of January 17th, 2014, Madison took a
running leap off the top of a Philadelphia
parking garage, consequently taking her own
life. The daughter, sister, niece, friend, and
teammate was gone in the blink of an eye.
She was just 19 years old. #
The story of Madison Holleran is
sadly not the only one of its kind.
According to Emory University, over 1,000
suicides take place on college campuses
each year. In addition, 1 out of every 10
college students has made a plan for
suicide. $ More often than not, suicide is the
tragic end to an underlying deeper issue: a
mental health disorder. Mental health issues
have been prevalent on college campuses
since their origin, but an increase in the
number of students suffering from mental
health issues has been witnessed in recent
years. % The contributing factors for these
disorders come as no surprise. College can
be thought of as the best four years of your
life, but it can also be the most stressful.
There is pressure everywhere: pressure to
succeed academically in order to have a
successful career, the monetary pressure of

paying for college, and the pressure to
succeed socially by “fitting in.” Social
media only amplifies the social pressures
college students face, by making public the
day to day private lives of people. Although
there are resources available for students to
seek help, only a small percentage of
students actually receive the help they so
desperately need. This is partially due to the
negative stigma surrounding mental health,
but it is also partially due to the limited
resources available on college campuses.
The longstanding problem of mental health
issues in college students is one that needs
attention and needs it now. While there is
not a clear cut resolution for this problem,
there are certainly ways in which it can be
minimized in order to prevent stories like
those of Madison Holleran.
First: Defining the Problem
Mental health is a phrase that has a
long standing stigma surrounding it,
although this stigma is certainly undeserved.
When it comes to mental health, the
definition of stigma can be taken even
further. There are two specific types of
stigma surrounding mental health.
There is the public stigma, which is the
reaction that the public has to people
suffering from mental illnesses. & Then
there is the self-stigma, which is
arguably the worse of the two. An
article published by World Psychiatry
defined self-stigma as “the prejudice
which people with mental illness turn
against themselves.” & But why is there this
public, and personal, shaming towards
mental illnesses?
In terms of the public-stigma, many
people have almost a fear of people
suffering from mental illnesses. Since
mental illnesses are basically invisible to the
human eye, the phrase “seeing is believing”
can apply here. Mental illnesses cannot be


seen by the naked eye; therefore, they must
not exist. This statement has proven to be
false time and time again, yet still, even in
this day and age, when being your true self
is preached far and wide, the general public
would just rather not talk about mental
illnesses. People with mental illnesses have
been thought of at times as “maniacs who
need to be feared” or as “weak.” & In
addition, the media has only worsened the
public stigma of mental illnesses through
dramatic horror movies and other similar
It is this public stigma which has
consequently caused the self-stigma. Those
suffering from mental illnesses feel ashamed
to admit that they are suffering, especially
college students. In a national survey
conducted by the National Alliance on
Mental Illness, where college students
suffering from mental illnesses were the
focus group, one survey respondent shared
his thoughts as to why he did not seek help
for his mental illness: “I was concerned that
the information would become part of a
permanent record that could be viewed
negatively. I still feel that there is a lot of
stigma and the benefits of disclosing do not
outweigh the risks.” % Although the survey
provided evidence showing that most
students know help is available, many
choose not to seek it “because of an
unnecessary shame surrounding these
issues.” Consequently, many students are
left to suffer in silence. '
Second: Numbers on the Rise – Why?
This brings the attention back to the
forefront issue at hand: the mental health
epidemic in college students. There is
evidence to support the claim that mental
illnesses are on the rise. However, many
sources have not attributed one specific
reason as to why the number of university

students suffering from mental illnesses is
increasing, mainly because there are two
main factors contributing to this increase.
Factor 1: A New Generation with New
The students that are enrolled at
universities today are those from the
Millennial Generation. People born between
1982 and the present fall into this category.
Millennial’s have earned themselves a
reputation of being team oriented,
optimistic, and most importantly in this case,
high achieving. ( It is the last quality, high
achieving, that is the one to be focused on in
this discussion. The Millennial Generation
seems to have redefined the definition of
success. In a millennial’s mind, it is no
longer good enough to just be like everyone
else. According to a school administrator,
“The high achieving millennial starts before
they even go to preschool, and they bring
the same attitudes about achievement to
college with them and they haven’t learned
how to fail. We’ve taught them how to
succeed very well – we haven’t taught them
how to fail, and learning to cope with failure
is a significant part of adolescence.” (
It is this fear of failure that truly sets
this generation of college students apart
from those of the past. Today’s college
students are constantly searching for
something that will set them apart from their
peers. This mindset transfers over quite
easily to academics. For instance, before the
Millenial Generation, attending college was
quite a feat. Not everyone did it, and when
you were one of the select few to obtain a
degree, it was a feat to be rather proud of.
However, nowadays, attending college is the
norm. Thus, in a millennial’s mind, it is no
longer just enough to go to a university and
obtain a degree. College has turned into so
much more than that. Now, it is all about


graduating at the top of your class and
earning a spot on the Dean’s List. Choosing
one major is no longer enough either, since
that is not original or unique enough.
Instead, students are expected to either
choose a double major, a minor, or in some
cases both. (

The increased competitiveness
amongst college students extends far outside
of the classroom. Due to the growing
percentage of the population that is pursuing
some form of higher education after high
school, employers now have a larger pool of
qualified applicants to choose from. Thus,
not only are students expected to maintain a
satisfactory grade point average, but
internships, co-ops and other forms of work
related experiences are also becoming a
“mandatory” part of college. In addition to
career related opportunities and experiences,
employers also want to see that students
were involved in their time spent at the
university. Involvement does not just mean
joining one or two clubs. It means
becoming an active member of an
organization that a student can speak
passionately about. Now, all of this is just
what employers want to see on a student’s
resume. Students are also expected to be
able to talk about their experience studying
abroad, doing community service, or some
other miscellaneous, yet time consuming,
All of this seems like it is
adding up rather quickly, doesn’t it?
The standards set for college students
of today are significantly higher than
those set for students a few decades
ago. Thus, it is unsurprising that a
study recently found that more than
80% of college students felt
overwhelmed by all they had to do in
the past year. An additional 45% of
students went on even further to admit

that they felt hopeless. ' In addition to
finding ways to somehow meet all of
these standards, college students also
have to deal with all of the previously
existing stresses of college. Certain
factors that have been putting students
at risk for mental health disorders for
decades include, but are not limited to:
the shock of a new environment, loss of
a familiar social network, isolation,
alienation, and experimentation with
drugs and alcohol. $ Thus, it is
understandable as to why today’s
college students experience more
anxiety and stress than prior
Factor 2: Social Media
The second factor that has largely
contributed to the increase of mental health
disorders in today’s college students is
social media. The Pew Research Center
found that social media usage has increased
by almost 1000% in the last eight years for
people between the ages of 18 and 29. In
addition, Experian Simmons found that an
astonishing 98% of all college students use
social media. ) Thus, now more than ever,
social media has a daunting presence on a
college student’s everyday life. With the tap
of a finger, students can pull up a social
media sight and instantly see pictures and
posts from a few hundred of their “closest”
friends. While social media can serve as
fantastic way for college students to stay in
touch with their relatives, high school
friends, and the like, it can also be
detrimental to one’s self esteem. A study
conducted by the University of Missouri
found that heavy social media usage can
correlate with symptoms of mental illnesses.
These symptoms include envy, anxiety and
depression. ) Social media usage can be
especially harmful to today’s generation of
college students, because, as previously


discussed, people from the Millennial
Generation are constantly trying to outdo
each other. Scott Feld, a professor of
sociology at Purdue University, stated how
“We’re always comparing ourselves to those
pregarious, outgoing, popular people who
try to present themselves as doing better
than what they really are,” which “creates a
false impression of how much happier or
more successful others are.” )
While many college students know
deep down that their peers tend to highly
exaggerate the greatness of their lives on
their social media profiles, social media is
still a cause for anxiety in many students. )
You see, social media allows people to pick
and choose what they want the public to see,
and what they do not want the public to see.
Essentially, social media allows people to
create a perfect online life, but in reality,
real life is never all that perfect. Take
Madison Holleran, for example. Two hours
before committing suicide, Madison posted
a photo on Instagram of soft, twinkling
holiday lights in Philadelphia. #

Anyone who came across Madison’s artsy
picture on their Instagram feed would have
never guessed that that same girl was
plotting her own death at the same time. So,
why can’t students just ignore social media

and not have any accounts, you may ask?
Social media has become integrated into
today’s culture, and it is here to stay. It is
not realistic to cut social media out of one’s
life. Feld put it best when he said:
“Basically, if you have a lot of friends on
Facebook, and you decide to cut out, you’re
kind of cutting yourself off from having a
social life that your friends are involved
with and it’s pretty hard to do that and to be
a part of your group of friends, especially in
college. If you want to be a part of the
group, you kind of have to do it (be a part of
social media), so that’s where the anxiety
comes in for students.” )
Third: Where Can Students Go for Help
– Is It Enough?
It is evident that the increased social
pressures of today’s society, coupled with
the mass amount of social media usage, has
led to the increase in mental illnesses seen in
today’s college student population.
However, mental illnesses are not new, and
all people, not only college students, have
been receiving treatment for them for
decades. Even though treatment is available
on college campuses in the form of
counseling services, the rise of student’s
seeking these services is what is the
underlying problem. You see, in previous
decades, due to the stigma of mental health,
many students would just brush their
problems aside and take the “toughen up”
approach instead. Nowadays, however,
students are becoming more assertive and
choosing to ask for help. Whether that is
due to an increase in severity of problems or
a slight decrease in stigma is unknown.
What is known is that more students are
seeking help from their university’s services
than ever.
Although the fact that more students
are seeking help is one step in the right


direction, it is in a way almost one step
backwards. Today’s university’s are not
properly prepared or equipped to handle the
flood of students seeking answers and help.
Many institutions experience staff burnouts
and staffing shortages during peak times. In
order to cope with the increase in demand,
some universities are pushing students with
less severe concerns to the side in order to
first help students whose issues are deemed
more important. ( While this strategy is
probably a university’s last resort, it is still
completely unacceptable. Yet, more and
more universities are using this tactic. For
example, at Penn State University, when a
student calls the university’s Center for
Counseling and Psychological Services
(CAPS), the student is first asked if they are
in need of immediate assistance. If the
student answers no, and responds that he just
would like to speak with a counselor, that
student is told that he will be put on a
waiting list and can expect to see a
counselor within the next two to four weeks.
If this wait time is not convenient for the
student, he is told that he can pay for private
treatment. There are so many aspects that
are wrong with this approach. First, what if
the student is already experiencing monetary
struggles and that is why he is experiencing
such stress and anxiety in the first place?
How is that student supposed to scrape
together the money to go talk to a counselor
when the university promises free services
to all students as part of their tuition
payments? Second, just because a student
does not consider themselves in need of
immediate assistance does not mean that
they should have to wait to talk to someone.
Counseling should teach you that you matter
more, not that you matter less. However, by
taking the “wait list” approach, this is
exactly what centers are doing to some

Of the students that do seek
treatment and are patient enough to wait on
the waitlist, 47% reported that overall they
had a good experience, mainly due to the
caring staff and individuals that work these
centers. % On the other hand, when students
reported they had a negative experience, one
of the reasons was because “the college does
not recognize the importance of peer
support.” % The fact of the matter is that a
student can temporarily feel better when
speaking with a counselor. Yet, when a
student leaves the presence of that counselor
and goes back to facing reality, taking those
lessons learned in counseling and applying
them to real life is easier said than done.
This is mainly because that stigma of mental
health does still exist, and it is the number
one reason for as to why students do not
seek help. %



Fourth and Finally: Why Does This
Problem So Desperately Need Attention?

many students feeling alone in their

Today’s college students are the
future of the world. Among these students
lie America’s future CEO’s, small business
owners, moms and dads, even the president.
Essentially, the future of the United States
depends on today’s college students and all
of the generations that will follow them. It
is for this reason that the increase of mental
health issues in college students needs to
come to an end, and instead, a decrease in
mental health issues needs to be seen.
Many students do not experience mental
health issues until they enter college. Thus,
colleges and universities have a large
influence on students, since sound mental
health is part of the foundation for student
well-being and academic success. ( Hence,
it is the responsibility of all universities
across the country to help reduce the mental
health epidemic that has erupted in their

All of the above ideas are solutions
that can be instilled in the short term. While
they will cost the institution money, this is a
problem that is worth fixing. Not only will
it improve the likelihood of a student’s
success, but it will also improve a
university’s graduation rates. Out of all
college students that dropped out of school,
64% cited a mental health issue as the
reason that they dropped out. % Now, of
course in order for this problem to be fully
reduced, effort will be needed not only from
universities, but also from students as well.
Students must be willing to seek treatment
for their mental illness. This is where
universities, and the entire population, come
into play yet again. You see, 50% of
students do not disclose their mental illness
to their university, with the leading factor of
this being the stigma surrounding mental
health. %

One way that a university can help
its students is by expanding the resources
available to students. This would not only
include hiring more counselors, but also
expanding the hours of a university’s CAPS
center so that every student can visit at a
time which fits their schedule. In addition,
universities should be obliged to hold a
minimum number of free stress reduction
and coping mechanism workshops, which
would allow students to obtain valuable
information from licensed individuals
without having to go through the hassle of
setting up an individual appointment with a
counselor. Another way in which a
university can expand its resources available
to students would be by providing more
opportunities for students to meet with their
peers and discuss the problems they are
facing. This would alleviate the problem of

If the overall stigma of mental health was
reduced, students would feel less ashamed
talking about their problems. This could
potentially lead to a faster resolution of a
student’s problem. In turn, many mental
health cases would be solved before they
could fester any further.


Four students at the University of
Tulane and three at Appalachian State took
their own lives within the past three years.
An appalling eleven students at the
University of Pennsylvania have committed
suicide within the past three years as well. *
Not all mental illnesses end with the victim
taking his or her own life. However, if the
issue of mental health in college students
was reduced, perhaps all of those 18
students would still be here today. It is
impossible to completely eradicate all
college students’ mental illnesses.
However, it is certainly within a university’s
capability, and not to mention their
responsibility, to aid in reducing the number
of its students who are sufferers. Just some
of the potential solutions to this problem
were listed above, but there are many more
that can be tried and tested in order to see
which are the most effective. While there
may be no one solution, there is no harm in
trying multiple. After all, a couple thousand
dollars spent on a failed experimental
solution is better than seeing that number of
18 suicides become 19.


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