Going away to college isn't the same these days. Once upon an All-American time, Mom and Dad unloaded the station wagon as their starry-eyed scholar surveyed the campus with a heart full of hope and a mind on fire with plans. The mood was wistful and optimistic; the future looked bright despite the tearful farewells.
But a shadow has fallen among the ivory towers. A growing number of students arrive on campus suffering from depression and other emotional disorders—some diagnosed, some hidden. So that traditional moment of new beginnings is haunted by deep anxiety and gloom.
A rapid-fire trio of student suicides at New York University this fall has focused attention on the problem. On Sept. 12, a day after celebrating his 20th birthday, Jack Skolnik of Evanston, Ill., leaped to his death from the 10th-floor inner balcony of the campus library. One month later, Stephen Bohler, 18, of Dayton, Ohio, made the same fatal dive. Finally, on Oct. 16, Michelle Gluckman, 19, a sophomore from Brooklyn, N.Y., threw herself from the sixth-floor window of an off-campus apartment.
Behind these deaths lurk an array of grim statistics that show how prevalent mental disorders have become on campus. Data from a 2001 survey of college mental-health counselors, when compared with past findings, revealed that the percentage of students treated at college counseling centers who have had psychological problems diagnosed and are taking psychotropic drugs increased from 7% in 1992 to 18% in 2001, according to Greg Snodgrass, director of the counseling center at Texas State University. The survey also found that during the previous five years, 85% of North American student counseling centers reported an increase in students with "severe psychological problems." Colleges have responded by beefing up mental-health services, including suicide-watch programs. Harvard set the standard in 1998—after a widely publicized campus murder-suicide case—by increasing staff 25%. "One huge issue was access," explains Dr. Richard Kadison, who heads mental-health services there.
Are today's students more emotionally fragile than their predecessors? No one can say, though some point to grueling pressures to succeed in an era of economic uncertainty and heightened parental expectations. Hal Pruett, director of student psychological services at UCLA, recalls a tense freshman who became so distracted by inner turmoil that he couldn't study. "He kept saying, 'I can't afford to get a C.' I asked why, and he said, 'I won't get into medical school, and my parents will disown me.'"
Hara Estroff Marano, an editor at Psychology Today who has interviewed college counselors and their students about depression, wonders what happened to sharing one's worries with roommates and friends. A depressed student told Marano she wouldn't dream of telling peers about her darker fears because she saw them as rivals, scrambling for the same grades and grad-school slots. "For many in this generation," says Marano, "there is a sense that you can't show any vulnerability." Pruett wonders if the reliance on medication to handle the blues hasn't weakened some students' nonpharmaceutical coping skills. "Sometimes we need to value our ability to solve and work through problems," he says. "Prescribing a drug sometimes deprives these young people of that age-old human ability."
The prescriptions may be saving lives, though. As the rate of their use on campus has gone up, overall reported college suicide rates, despite the cluster at N.Y.U., have fallen noticeably, from a total of 122 in 2000 to 80 in 2001. "It's the Prozac payoff," says Marano. That and the determined efforts of campus mental-health professionals to diagnose depression early, treat it aggressively and reassure students that the sunny college careers of yesteryear represent an ideal and not always a reality.