Students suffer from depression, anxiety
By Drew Joseph And Amita Kulkarni, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series examining mental health at the College. Today's article explores Dartmouth students' experiences with mental health disorders and the student response to mental illness on campus.
Most Dartmouth students face bouts of anxiety when juggling term papers and test preparations as final exams quickly approach; for many, this stress will soon dissipate and they will return to being some of the happiest college students in the nation, as they are often ranked by Princeton Review.
For some students at the College, however, anxiety and stress, among other mental health disorders, are issues that continue well beyond finals period and exist independently of normal emotional highs and lows.
Each year, 20 percent of undergraduate and graduate students utilize the counseling services offered at Dick's House to address adjustment issues, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse, according to Heather Earle, associate director of counseling and human development at Dick's House.
"A lot of issues are adjustment disorders," Earle said. "It's a depression, but not a major depression. Dartmouth students do a lot of things, which is great, but sometimes it can be overwhelming."
Dartmouth students are similar to students at any top-tier competitive school, Earle said.
"There's not anything about the Dartmouth students that would make them more prone to counseling," Earle said. "Dartmouth students are not any more likely to come into counseling than at a place like Harvard [University] or [the University of California] Berkeley. I think Dartmouth students are overall mentally healthy."
While the Fiske College Guide has characterized Dartmouth's academic life as being "far from cutthroat," Dartmouth remains a competitive and academically challenging institution with a highly motivated and hard-working student body.
"Most very competitive schools are going to have a higher percentage of mental health issues," said Allison Baker '09, a member Dartmouth's chapter of Active Minds, a national mental health awareness group. "Competition and perfectionism go hand in hand with increased levels of mental health issues."
The academic intensity at the College and the ambition of the student body can be overwhelming for some individuals at Dartmouth, according to Active Minds president Taylor Dryman '09.
"There is a lot that people don't see, and it exists under the surface," Dryman said. "There is something to be said about the Dartmouth bubble. The environment is rigorous, competitive and the students are very involved and successful."
The Dartmouth Plan can also place significant stress on students, with rushed quarter terms and the instability many students feel as friends cycle on and off campus, Baker said.
Dartmouth's rural location also can give students the impression that they are the only ones struggling because students interact with a limited number of people, Baker added.
Baker has spent time dealing with mental illness in her immediate family.
"You are extremely competitive and hold yourself to high standards," Baker said of Dartmouth students. "You don't think of anyone else's feelings of inadequacy. We all get so wrapped up in our own insecurities. Students are compassionate towards each other and they're happy for each other when they succeed. They need to turn that hospitality inward."
Some students struggle with the transition from high school, when they were at the top of their class, to a school where the majority of students have high academic expectations, according to Dryman.
"It's hard to be in an environment where everyone is above average," she said. "You see so many happy people, and you assume it should be the same for you as well."
Beyond the academic pressures at Dartmouth, students highlighted how the College's reputation as a party school and the prominence of Greek life on campus can make students feel obligated to consume alcohol as a way to successfully assimilate into the campus community.
"The Dartmouth mantra is that 'We're the party Ivy. We're just as smart, but we're normal,'" Baker said. "There's some pressure to live up to the 'Animal House' reputation."
Matt McDonald '09 could relate to this mantra as a freshman, he said. The structure of the social system at Dartmouth can make it difficult for men to fit in if they do not consume alcohol, he explained.
"I was a big fan of the Greek scene," McDonald, who suffers from a bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, said. "If I weren't interested in drinking, I wouldn't have come to Dartmouth. It quickly became a problem because going to frats and drinking made my mental issues worse and then I would drink more. It was a really bad cycle."
The individuals interviewed by The Dartmouth who are not attracted to the College's Greek system said they often face a lack of alternative social spaces on campus.
"The Dartmouth community can be very isolating," said a student who is suffering from depression and wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject. "If you are not involved in Greek life, there's very little opportunity to find things to do outside of that."
While a fifth of Dartmouth students utilize the counseling services provided by the College, there are some students who are not willing to do so. To reach out to those students, Dick's House organizes a number of efforts through the athletic department and undergraduate advisors, according to Earle.
Active Minds, Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors and Eating Disorder Peer Advisors are alternative, student-led support networks that offer information and advice to students facing specific mental health issues.
"The point of these groups is to empower students to educate and support other students," said Kari Jo Grant, the health education program coordinator who oversees Eating Disorder Peer Advisors, Sexperts and Active Minds. "The purpose of Active Minds is to increase awareness and to decrease stigma around mental health."
Students who are in need of specific help will most likely turn to either Dick's House, EDPA or DAPA first, Dryman said. Students who do not have specific concerns often contact Active Minds, which directs individuals to the appropriate contact.
For students dealing with mental illness, all aspects of their lives are affected. Academic work can suffer, as can relationships with friends and family.
"It's sometimes difficult to sleep because there's so much on your mind," Grant explained. "Some people can't get out of bed. If you feel like everyone around you is happy and you're not, you isolate yourself."
There are also people suffering from mental illness who need to be around others constantly, Grant added.
The strain on personal relationships is sometimes exacerbated by the fact that students dealing with mental health issues often depend on iterating their experience to friends.
"A lot of people feel very ashamed," Baker said. "You feel guilty because you're putting this pressure on your friends and your friends feel guilty because sometimes they can't help you adequately."
Still, often the best way of dealing with a mental health issue is talking to someone, Grant said.
"What I would recommend is that you don't keep it to yourself," she said. "Find someone you trust, and confide. Sharing can be a real lift. If you can't find someone you trust, then you should speak to a therapist."