Where’s the Cry Closet? | Assessing Mental Health in College Students

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In recognition, we will be publishing a series of articles about the status of mental health in the United States. Mental health diagnoses are rising and many colleges are trying to react in the best way they can to protect mental health in college students.

Mental Health in College Students

The University of Utah recently installed a “cry closet” in one of their libraries. It’s a small room with padded walls and stuffed animals that students can use as a refuge during finals week. As a recent college grad, I didn’t know if I should roll my eyes at the absurdity, or be jealous that my school didn’t think of it first.

I read through the article on Twitter that described the closet in more detail – it began as an art project by student Nemo Miller. After completing the project, Miller received permission from the university to display it in the library. Her hope was that it would give students a place to take a well-deserved break during finals week, and would “promote feeling, thought, and conversation.”

It definitely did that.

People had polarizing reactions – some applauded the piece and the concept of a “cry closet” while others criticized a generation that couldn’t handle taking a test without a quick cry.

As I read more, I started thinking about this not as a recent college grad who’s had her fair share of meltdowns, but as someone who’s spent the last year immersed in behavioral health. What does a “cry closet” say about the mental health of our college students?

Let’s look at the numbers

I loved college. But juggling five classes, an internship, two on-campus jobs, five executive boards, a thesis project, a fellowship, and expectations from peers, parents, professors, supervisors, and advisors was emotionally exhausting. 

I was only reduced to tears twice – my typical coping method was denial and copious amounts of caffeine and carbs. But other students were reduced to tears more regularly. And not over one test. They juggled workloads that equaled or surpassed mine and didn’t have the support system I did.

Students are stressed. A 2015 study of 1000 students showed that 30% are stressed for the entire semester; 28% are stressed 5-7 times per semester; 31% are stressed 2-4 times per semester; and 9% are stressed once per semester. 57.7% of students experienced overwhelming anxiety at least once in the past month.

Stress is just one aspect of a college student’s mental health. More than 75% of all mental health conditions begin before the age of 24 and 1 in 5 college students will suffer from at least one. Almost 73% of college students living with a mental health condition experienced a mental health crisis on campus.

The Top 5

Students struggle with a wide variety of mental health issues, but there are five that are the most prevalent among college students today.

  1. Depression

This common disorder affects 36.4% of college students. Depression is the number one reason students drop out of school, and if left untreated can lead to more mental health issues. Students often find themselves ill equipped to handle the negative emotions of starting college – confusion, helplessness, stress, fear. If these feelings never dissipate and the student doesn’t seek help, they can lead to depression.

  1. Anxiety

Not everyone who feels anxious has an anxiety disorder. It’s normal to feel anxious at times. Anxiety becomes a cause for concern when it interferes with your daily life and hinders you from accomplishing tasks. Affecting over 40 million adults over the age of 18, anxiety is the most common mental illness. 75% of those affected by an anxiety disorder experience their first episode before the age of 22.

There are multiple types of anxiety disorders: generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), and more.

  1. Suicide

Suicide can arise when feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and despair build from pre-existing mental health issues. In 2013, suicide was declared the second leading cause of death in college students in the United States. Students may communicate their intent through their speech, mood, or behavior.

I was a Resident Assistant (RA) for two years in college, and I had several residents struggle with suicidal thoughts. One student had a pre-existing mental health illness, while others were under intense pressure from their academic and extracurricular commitments. They exhibited several of the warning signs we were taught to look out for in RA training, which is how I knew further action was needed.

  1. Eating Disorders

Eating disorders plague all ages and genders. 30,000,000 people suffer from eating disorders in the United States. It’s the mental health disorder with the highest mortality rate.

Many students gain weight during their first year at college now that they have complete control over their diet and can eat ice cream for dinner as often as they want. Students may seek to rectify this problem or prevent it by severely watching what they eat, and subsequently developing an eating disorder. For others, diet is the one thing they have control over during a tumultuous period of change and they cling to that control.

Many college students do not seek help for their eating disorders, or do not believe that they have a problem. Eating disorders are life threatening and often lead to other serious health issues if not acknowledged.

  1. Addiction

Students are experiencing newfound freedoms at college, and often discover how accessible drugs and alcohol are. Without parents or guardians nearby, and with easy and encouraged access to a variety of substances, many students take advantage without considering the side effects. Nearly 20% of college students meet the Alcohol Use Disorder criteria. Almost 60% of college students have consumed alcohol in the last month, and two out of three of these students binge drank during the last month.

To cry in a closet, or not to?

The number of students dealing with mental health problems is rising. And college counselors are seeing an increase in threat-to-self characteristics such as serious suicidal thoughts and self-injurious behaviors. With this increase, schools are struggling to find solutions. Cornell University installed “suicide nets” underneath their bridges in 2012. Therapy dogs grace campuses to offer support during finals week. And, of course, the University of Utah installed their cry closet. However, these solutions paint a pretty grim picture of what’s supposed to be the best four years of your life.

These solutions are reactive – but we need to be proactive. Students need to learn how to cope with their mental health illnesses in a way that isn’t detrimental to their overall health. They need to recognize how many of their peers are silently struggling with similar afflictions. And they need to know there’s no shame in struggling and in asking for help.

The first step for colleges is to raise awareness, and talk about mental health. Tell students what the warning signs are for the top 5 mental health illnesses on campus. Tell students what resources are available to them. Sing the praises of the counseling center, of the students’ Resident Assistants, Hall Directors, professors, and advisers.

Ask students what they need to be successful – more counselors, one mental health day per semester, reading weeks before finals….and if they need a cry closet, give them a cry closet. Just don’t expect it to solve everything.

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