Students in distress: on campus resources for those who need help
Published: Thursday, September 30, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 16:02
The tragic death of junior Christina Nichols shocked the UNH community and raised the question of how many students on campus are depressed or in distress.
Most crises can be resolved successfully with coping mechanisms and if need be, outside resources. But some may escalate into precarious, potentially dangerous situations for a student in distress.
The numbers concerning depression and anxiety are startling. According to mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics 2007 report, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students. The number one cause for college student suicide is untreated depression, according to the report.
A recent survey by the American College Health Association found that 15 percent of college students were formally diagnosed with depression last year - up from 10 percent four years ago. In the past 50 years, the suicide rate for those between the ages of 15 to 24 increased by over 200 percent.
According to the ACHA report, about 12 people aged 15 to 24 will commit suicide daily - equal to about one suicide every two hours. On average, there are 1,100 suicides reported on college campuses each year.
A "UNH Magazine" article published in 2005 found that UNH averages one suicide per year.
Dr. Edith Posselt, staff psychologist at the UNH Counseling Center, has worked with distressed students for 19 years. In her experience on the UNH campus, suicide attempts are not altogether uncommon and are usually motivated by triggered mental stressors or the influence of alcohol or drugs. According to Posselt, however, completed suicides are rare.
"It's distressing," Posselt said. "And it seems important when we've had a suicide on campus."
The Counseling Center's "Year in Review" report for the 2009-2010 academic year recorded 885 students seeking counseling services at the facility through intake appointments. That is 200 more than it was a few years ago, according to Posselt. Among this population, 69 percent were female, 28 percent were male and three percent were transgender. Of these distressed students, 57 percent specified relationship issues as the source of mental distress, while 58 percent specified multiple concerns as the source of mental distress. In total, six percent of the student body at UNH seeks services from the Counseling Center every year.
"I think people are facing incredible stressors nowadays," Posselt said.
Although the causes of this increase in distressed college students are manifold and interrelated, reasons likely include academic pressure, financial issues due to the economic recession and transitional difficulties, especially for first-year students, Posselt said.
"I do think that for young people, there are factors of alcohol, guns - more methods of making a quick decision," Posselt said.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 70 percent of young people who make a suicide attempt are frequent users of alcohol or other drugs. While this does not by any means apply to every individual in crisis, Posselt said that rash decisions are more easily made under the influence of these drugs.
Posselt said recognizing signs of depression and potentially suicidal behavior is key to diverting such a tragedy. A depressed individual may exhibit symptoms that vary from interpersonal indicators such as reclusive behavior, low self-esteem or unprovoked hostility to academic indicators like dropping grades, repeated absences from class and creative work that expresses feelings of hopelessness, anger or social isolation. There may be deterioration in physical appearance, from visible changes in weight to excessive fatigue.
So when you see a distressed friend, classmate or roommate, what should you do?
One key to helping out such individuals is to keep the lines of communication open, to help them realize that their situation is not permanent, and let them know that there is hope for change, said Posselt.
"I think it's important to not ignore anything," she said. "I think some people are saying they're just trying to get attention, but it's not the case."
Even when the warning signs are indiscernible, in 70 percent of all suicide cases, a person in crisis will attempt to alert others before attempting suicide. This might be in the form of a text message, Facebook status or phone call.
Studies show that college students who are suicidal are typically withdrawn and reluctant to get treatment.
"At this point, I think people need to be nosey sometimes," Posselt said. "It could save someone's life."
What you can do for a friend in crisis?
For an emergency crisis requiring immediate assistance, call 911 or UNH Health Services at 603-862-1530 and press 1. Either of these numbers will connect you with an ambulance. During daytime hours, you or the student may consult with a counselor or schedule an emergency intake appointment by calling the Counseling Center at 603-862-2090, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Students in crisis after 5 p.m. or on weekends may call this same number and have the call forwarded to speak with a clinician from the Behavioral Health Unit at Portsmouth Hospital. Emergency intake appointments are conducted after hours at Portsmouth Hospital.
What can you do for yourself?
If you are a college student feeling distressed or in emergency crisis, you can get help immediately by scheduling an intake appointment with your local physician or an on-call clinician at the UNH Counseling Center.
Ways to alleviate stress might include taking a brisk walk, joining a Zumba class or yoga session at the Hamel Recreation Center, praying or meditating, or something as simple as a movie night with friends. Friends, family, resident assistants, coaches and professors can be positive sources of support.
There are on-campus student services that are free or cost very little.