The rate of suicide and depression on college campuses is rising, and last month the trend hit St. Cloud State University.
Two students killed themselves, causing the university's president to send a mass e-mail encouraging students to relax and, if needed, get help. The deaths heightened concerns about the economy's pressure on anxious students and the colleges that are trying to help them.
"We are not talking about test anxiety here," President Earl Potter later said. "We are talking about a stew of challenges, on top of which our students have to deal with academic success and often the challenge of finding money to keep themselves in school."
Potter called mental health problems among college students "a national crisis."
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. About 1.1 percent of 8,000 Minnesota post-secondary students surveyed by the University of Minnesota's Boynton Health Service in 2008 had attempted suicide within the past 12 months, up slightly from the year before.
At colleges around the nation, more students are seeking help. The percentage of students who reported a diagnosis of depression rose from 10.3 percent in 2000 to 14.9 percent in spring of 2008 -- the most recent comparable data -- according to the American College Health Association's annual National College Health Assessment.
This is the busiest time of year, several counseling centers said, because class work ramps up and finals loom.
Colleges are responding with a mix of counseling and support services. The efforts go beyond suicide prevention, addressing stress and depression. Studies show that good mental health leads to good grades and graduation, so schools say that keeping students healthy is an important part of their mission.
But as a recent Minnesota State Colleges and University report found, counseling costs money, and there's no clear source of it.
"Institutions like ours were never funded to provide the services we need to provide today," Potter said.
Stress over succeeding
Even in high school, Nellie Brau was a perfectionist -- an athlete, an artist, an A student. Her stress about succeeding grew, and after asking her mom for help, doctors diagnosed depression and anxiety. She wanted to take action, so she started a group for students to discuss their mental illness in an open, confidential environment. Being proactive helped her get healthy.
But then came college, where she "absolutely felt like a number." The depression returned.
"I didn't reach out, I didn't know where to turn," said Brau, now a junior majoring in global studies and French at the University of Minnesota.
She has noticed that the university has become more vocal about mental health. It launched a task force that recommended creating a website where students could learn about mental health, get screened for common afflictions and find help. As part of Welcome Week for freshmen, it introduces services for students (for those who have insurance and for those who don't) and offers presentations from a group called Active Minds, which works to erase the stigma of mental illness.
Brau joined her sophomore year. Members of that group discuss how mental health has affected their lives. But Brau sees these issues touching all her friends.
"On the campus setting, on a day-to-day basis, most students are stressed and under pressure," she said. "One truth I know is that all my friends seem to be stressed out on a very regular basis, and they're trying to find a way to vent or deal with the pressure they feel they're under."
Brau now sees a therapist, exercises and paints to center herself.
Funding is a 'challenge'
The down economy has put pressure on both sides of the counseling equation. Even before the recession hit, more U of M students were citing stress about the cost of education, said Glenn Hirsch, director of the U's counseling and consulting services.
"Now we're seeing situations where their options are very limited," he said. "If you're already struggling with depression or anxiety, that makes for a much more serious issue."
Meanwhile, colleges and universities are struggling to fund beefed-up care.
In a recent report, a task force within the MnSCU system recommended ways schools should step up and coordinate their online and in-person mental health services, but noted that "finding the resources to address these issues [is a] challenge."
"Perhaps a new mental health services fee might be instituted," the report said. Spokeswoman Melinda Voss said colleges and universities provide the services out of their general budgets.
Despite cuts in other areas, St. Cloud added a position to its counseling services last summer, said John Eggers, director of counseling and physiological services.
It has also created what it calls a "behavioral intervention team," which encourages talk between groups that interact with students but might not have communicated with one another in the past. For example, a residence hall employee might notice a student staying in bed for days but not pass along that message to that student's academic adviser.
Similar teams are springing up across the country, Eggers said, in part because of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. Last year, the St. Cloud intervention team fashioned support for 114 students who were referred.
That system might have helped save at least one life this fall. A student and veteran had disappeared from campus and, with help from his parents and the police, St. Cloud State was able to find and assist him.
It was a "potentially tragic" case, Potter said, but it ended well.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168