Photo by Martino Sabia
United States / Mental Health

After Nowhere: Mental Health and Suicide on College Campuses

October in Brunswick, Maine, looks like a scene out of an L.L. Bean catalogue. Bowdoin’s campus is decorated with foliage contrasted against a bright, blue sky. Sitting in the library, one can watch groups of students play Frisbee on the quad, toe slack lines, and relax in hammocks tied up between the trees. Professors walk their dogs and somehow there is always a laughing child or two.

A large tour group, filled with stressed high school seniors approaching that oh-so-important early decision deadline on November 15, walks out onto the quad. The seniors pause as they reach their first full view of the breathtaking, quintessentially New England scene. One can imagine what they are thinking: “Will this be me in a year?”

Unfortunately for the seniors, probably not. Recent surveys show that the suicide rates on college campuses are skyrocketing, placing depression and anxiety at the forefront of conversations about mental health on campuses. For some students, gaining acceptance is no longer the hardest part of college. The true challenge is dealing with the intense pressures and expectations that often emotionally devastate college students.

In the past five years, the suicide rate of college students has increased from 9.6 deaths per year to 11.1 deaths per year. Many schools are also undergoing what are known as “suicide clusters” in which three or more students commit suicide in a span of twelve months. The University of Pennsylvania has had six student suicides in the past year, Tulane University had four student suicides in the 2014–2015 academic year, and Cornell University had six student suicides in the  2009–2010 academic year.

A sharp increase in cases of depression and anxiety is causing the rising suicide rate. College counseling centers have reported that more than half of their patients have severe psychological problems, an increase of 13 percent from two years before. The mental health epidemic has become so severe on some campuses that counseling centers are having trouble seeing students immediately.

The number of suicides at elite institutions has brought a lot of media attention to depression and anxiety. There has been a huge effort recently to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues. For example, colleges are educating students on when and how to ask for help. The response to this epidemic has been large and loud, but it has been mostly reactionary. The real question about the underlying factors contributing to the decline of students’s mental health remains a mystery.

Many people associate increased pressures and stressors with the increase in cases of depression and anxiety. This seems like a natural and logical conclusion. But people have been attending college for hundreds of years, and the suicide rate only started to spike in the early 2000s. What is different about colleges and their students now?

One of the major factors contributing to the increased pressure on college students is the high stress environments in which younger and younger students are educated. At a New York City charter school network called Success Academy, test scores are significantly higher than the city average, but at what cost? According to The New York Times, 29 percent of public school students passed the state reading tests last year, and 35 percent of public school students passed the math tests. In comparison, the corresponding pass rates were 64 percent and 94 percent. In an era where standardized test scores are used widely as a measure of academic success, these numbers seem astounding. Considering the students of Success Academy are mainly poor black and Hispanic children, the charter school network seems to have found a magic formula for academic success against all odds.

But a closer look into the network reveals an infrastructure built on, according to New York Times reporter Kate Taylor, “a system driven by the relentless pursuit of better results.” Success Academy has many success stories, but its culture driven by relentless expectations to perform also maintains a series of horror stories of the lengths teachers and administrators will go to ensure high test scores. Students, parents, and former teachers describe children wetting themselves during practice exams, grades displayed in weekly class newsletters, and “effort academy” for those students not meeting expectations.

A 2012 email written by Lauren Jonas, a vice principal at a Harlem Success Academy, wrote of the intense pressure that is placed on children in the fourth grade and below: “You must demand every single minute. You must have higher behavioral and academic expectations than ever before. This is serious business and there has to be misery felt for the kids who are not doing what is expected of them.”

One would expect that any educator who believed this was the correct way to nurture developing minds would be immediately fired. Instead, Ms. Jonas was recently made principal at one of the network’s newest schools.

Success Academy, while a chilling example, is not the only school that emphasizes test scores over more meaningful academic success. The grassroots film “Race to Nowhere” chronicles the intense pressure that has become the norm in middle schools and high schools across the country. The film shows teenagers all over the United States losing their grip on reality due to the unrealistic goals set for them by their teachers, parents, and selves.

Gone are the days of coming home, throwing your backpack in the kitchen, and immediately racing outside to play with your friends. Instead, children are now spending their afternoons studying and their Saturdays taking practice tests.

Living in such rigid environments from an early age is having devastating effects on the emotional development of today’s youth. Programs such as Success Academy, with its harsh overreactions to every misstep, have created an epidemic of students who view every small setback as an epic failure. Dan Jones, director of counseling and psychological services at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., describes this phenomenon: “A lot are coming to school who don’t have the resilience of previous generations.” Instead of being able to define success outside the walls of academia, these students have spent their entire lives striving for the highest score on the next exam.

These students hit rock bottom when they reach college, a place where success is no longer defined by outside factors and is significantly more internally generated. “Race to Nowhere” also explores this idea, and “questions whether memorizing material for a test fosters the kind of critical thinking students need for college classes down the road.” Endless cycles of rote memorization and examinations have corrupted the educational system, which is supposed to teach students how to think. Director Vicki Abeles instead thinks “there is tremendous pressure on all kids to get the grade, to get the test score…which is creating an epidemic of unhealthy kids who are also arriving at college and the workplace unprepared.”

As these students move out of these super high pressure environments they have no capability to define success for themselves. When a student is not capable of defining success for herself, she then sees everyone around her as being more successful, especially with the widespread use of social media among college students.

As a result, many college students are trying to do it all: keep up with mounting academic pressures, maintain an active social life, and balance their athletics and extracurricular activities. This idea of maintaining a perfect facade while juggling it all has become a widespread phenomenon on college campuses. At The University of Pennsylvania, it is referred to as “Penn face.” Stanford students have nicknamed it “duck syndrome” in reference to a duck appearing to calmly glide along the surface while actually frantically paddling underneath.

College students, especially when faced with what they feel to be an insurmountable pressure to succeed, commonly forgo sleep in their pursuit of perfection. But this is one of the worst things an already emotionally unstable adolescent can do.

It has long been known that sleep and overall health are closely linked. In fact, the World Health Organization has listed working night shifts on their list of possible and known carcinogens. According to an article by Charles A. Czeilser, Ph.D., M.D., of Harvard Medical School, “The loss of as little as about 2.5 hours of sleep per night (from a calculated average need of 8.16 hours of sleep per night) for two weeks results in a steady deterioration in the ability to sustain vigilance effectively.” Yet the effects of sleep deprivation on mental health have received significantly little public attention.

While not widely known, the correlation between a lack of sleep and a decline in mental health is also strong. Numerous studies point to sleep as a major factor in a number of diagnoses including depression and anxiety. In a meta-analysis of sleep literature done in 2014, Nicole Lovato explores the predictive value of sleep deprivation (where deprivation is defined as less than 6 hours a night) on adolescent depression. The study concluded that “adolescents diagnosed with depression report significantly more sleep disturbance when compared to non-clinical adolescents, including reduced sleep quality and symptoms of both insomnia and hypersomnia.”

A study in 2007 by the American Psychological Association assessing sleep disturbances in 140 adolescent suicide victims found that suicide completes had higher rates of sleep disturbance and insomnia. The authors assert that thee findings “support a significant and temporal relationship between sleep problems and completed suicide in adolescents.”

These studies are just a few in an overwhelming barrage of literature all pointing to the same idea: Sleep deprivation and suicide are closely linked, especially when combined with the already volatile emotional state of adolescence.

We must recognize that suicide is an incredibly complex issue. No single reason can explain why suicide rates for college students are climbing. But increased pressures and sleep deprivation are clearly playing a large role. When the pressure has been building from an incredibly early age, as we can see with increasingly harsh educational systems like Success Academy, the incentive to give up sleep in pursuit of perfection is higher than ever.

It is also so easy to read statistics and scientific data about increasing pressure and decreasing mental health while brushing it off as “that’s not me.” It is even easier to think that depression and anxiety are not a problem at Bowdoin simply because we have not experienced the same rates of student suicide as other schools.

But when you look closely at the culture of our small school, the same pressures are evident. We emphasize the idea of the “Bowdoin Hello” which is really the same thing as “Penn face” or “duck syndrome.” Our campus encourages people to put on a happy face and smile at everyone they pass, no matter what our inside emotional state may be.

Even the Offer of the College places an extreme amount of pressure on students: “This is the offer of the college for the best four years of your life.” While this may be an inspirational phrase to some, to others it may emphasize the feeling that they have to be perfectly happy all the time. It is insane to expect that Bowdoin will be the best four years of everyone’s life. It is even more outrageous to express that sentiment in what is considered to be a central document of this institution. Although many people will say “college will be the best four years of your life,” that is extremely different than a college publishing that statement as an objective fact. It promotes a culture of perfectionism, and trying to meet that expectation is most likely just adding to the intense pressure some students are already feeling.

But in some ways Bowdoin does defy the statistics. Our community has many resources that other institutions do not provide to their students. There is also a movement across our campus to recognize that the expectations on this campus are unreasonable and that it is okay to fail. While that may not always be easy to remember, it is key to being successful in this environment while staying healthy at the same time. Perhaps when we change standards on this campus so that everyone is able to succeed in a healthy manner we will truly be able to offer “the best four years of your life.