By Micah McIntyre
The pressure is on as students across America are preparing for one of the most stressful periods of the school year: exam week. As academic pressure rises, anxiety levels are rising with it, raising questions about mental health on college campuses across the country.
Counseling Center director Toussaint Whetstone stated that an increasing number of Wheaton College students are seeking help in the Counseling Center. “There has been about a 15.5 percent increase in fall semester service utilization since fall 2015. So far this semester, we have provided services for 174 more students than we did in the fall semester of 2015,” he said. The total number of unique clients received by the Counseling Center is up to 387 this semester alone. “There are many small liberal arts schools about the size of Wheaton College that provide counseling to fewer students in an entire academic year. We have already served more than 14 percent of our student population, and we have not even gotten through the fall semester.”
USA Today reported last month that suicide in the United States is up by 33 percent since 1999 — it is over two times as likely for an American to commit suicide than to be killed by homicide. The trend is even more concerning when it comes to college students. The American College Health Association found that suicide among young adults has tripled since the 1950s. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for college students in the United States. Studies show that six percent of undergraduate students and four percent of graduate students have “seriously considered attempting suicide” in the past year. On average, there are 1,100 suicide every year on college campuses in America, meaning that the suicide rate is at 7.5 per 100,000 students.
Circumstances vary among students who take their own lives, but researchers found that academic pressures play a major role in many cases. According to Whetstone, there has not been a completed suicide at Wheaton since the 1980s, but this trend of decreased mental health during exams is consistent here as well. “Exam season tends to cause not only an increase in service utilization, but also an increase in psychological symptom severity,” he said.
Whetstone was also one of four guest speakers at “Mental Health Matters,” an event put on by Wheaton’s student-led mental health advocacy group, Lighthouse. He shared a story about his wife’s mental health in the midst of academic pressure in school and the struggle to balance the demands of school with the need to care for those around you. When Whetstone was in graduate school, his now-wife attempted suicide the night before his independent study project was due. They were about 90 miles away from one another, so he could not easily go to his fiance without forsaking his project. After ensuring that she was stable and safe at her parents’ house, he remained at school to finish his project and meet with his professor the following day. It was not until that professor prompted him to tend to what really matters in life — the suicide attempt rather than the project — that he left to care for his fiancee. In his view, the attitude he held before receiving this advice reflects much of Wheaton’s student body in some ways.
“What I notice about Wheaton College students is what I noticed about myself in [my wife’s] story. Our tendency is to keep going, to keep pushing forward. Our tendency is to think that this academic realm is of the utmost importance,” he said. “[My professor told me] ‘tend to the things that are eternal — tend to the things that matter.’”
According to junior Katelyn Beaghan, Student Health Services and Living Abundantly Ministries are working to help Wheaton students step outside of the “academic realm” and refocus their energy on their own well-being and on God with a Study Break on Dec. 17 that will be very similar to Destress Fest at the end of the first quad.
“We hope to provide a space for students to rest and take a break from studying in a way that incorporates and cares for all parts of the human life,” said Beaghan. This break will be based on the Come Alive! curriculum that “combines spiritual and physical health by incorporating spiritual practices and physical practices.” Some of those activities include a “one-minute Sabbath,” a time for discussion about how to holistically care for others in the Church and stretches followed by healthy snacks to care for the body.
Interim Dean of Student Care and Services Carrie Williams and her team are also committed to encouraging the student body to value their health in the midst of the academic pressures during exams. “[The Student Care Team] is available to all students to assist them holistically to ensure they are thriving and finish well each semester. Whether it be mental/emotional, physical/medical, social or academic manifestation of their mental health and stress needs, we are here to care for students,” she said in an email to the Record.
According to statistics published by Chadron State College, 40 percent of college students suffering from mental illness did not seek help in 2011. In times of stress and anxiety, Lighthouse president Emily Schroen, and Whetstone both urged students to be vocal about their struggles and reach out for help. “It is supremely important for students to understand that psychological symptoms worsen when we attempt to cope with them by isolating,” said Whetstone. Schroen also stated in an interview with the Record that from her observations as president of Lighthouse she found that “a huge part of mental illness is isolation … the idea that you are completely alone. We wanted to show that no one is alone and that mental health matters to everyone, not just people with a specific condition.”