Anxiety Crisis On College Campuses

Apr 24, 2019

Exams for the end of Spring semester are approaching, but student anxiety is a year-round problem.  We are in the middle of what experts are calling a mental health crisis on college campuses.  

James Madison University and the University of Virginia are seeing the effects. WMRA’s Anna Saunders reports.

A recent panel of experts at JMU highlighted the problem: anxiety has eclipsed depression as the number-one mental health crisis. College students are seeking out counseling in record numbers. At JMU, around one thousand students sought counseling just last year. Shirley Cobb, the Assistant Director of Clinical Services at JMU, has seen firsthand a major spike in visits, especially with students in crisis.

SHIRLEY COBB: Our crisis load has increased by over 800% since 2007. They’re coming in. They’re distressed. And that’s what we’re responding to.

Cobb has been at JMU for 43 years and says she has never seen the number of visits get this high before. While there are many different explanations and theories for the increase, Cobb sees social media and increased parent involvement as the big factors.

COBB: Our students are not very resilient. They’re likable. They’re competent. Their capacity to tolerate frustration and to do problem solving is declining. They’re anxious.

Shirley Cobb, Assistant Director of Clinical Services at JMU

In particular, social anxiety – the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by others- is quite common on JMU’s campus. With engagement listed as one of the university’s top priorities, it can be difficult for some students to adjust to the hyper-social environment JMU creates. Jamie Graeff, a JMU senior, considers herself an introvert and experiences social anxiety often.

JAMIE GRAEFF: I definitely noticed right away that everyone at JMU is super extrovert, super outgoing, and that was really intimidating for me, because I’ve always been more reserved.

Graeff says it is not just the students and classrooms. She believes there are more spaces on campus meant for people who like being social, including, ironically, the Student Success Center, or SSC.

GRAEFF: I try to avoid SSC at all costs. Just walking through it. You walk through the middle of everything. Everyone’s staring at you. I don’t like the feeling of a bunch of people looking at me I guess. So maybe having more places that are more low-key for introverts to go to.

At the University of Virginia, students also experience social anxiety. But the prestige that comes with this competitive university can also create an environment that can lead to another problem: anxiety over academic performance. Nicole Ruzek, the director of counseling and psychological services, says that a recent survey said that 55% of UVA students plan to seek out counseling.

NICOLE RUZEK: And these are students who have been admitted because they were at the top of their class and involved in lots of different activities when they were in high school. And then once they get to UVa, not all of them can be at the top, so there can be some, you know, anxiety about no longer being number one of your class.

Nicole Ruzek, Director of Counseling and Psychological services at UVA

One unusual feature about UVA is that it offers separate embedded counselors for the law, business and engineering schools. According to Ruzek, this is to compensate for the distance from these areas to the main counseling center and for the stigma surrounding mental health in these particular fields.

RUZEK: So embedding someone there, particularly to reach certain populations that wouldn’t be as motivated or might experience more stigma around seeking mental health care, so trying to capture some of those populations and get those students support sooner rather than later.

While individual students can experience different types of anxiety, the doubts and misgivings that it brings out can affect classroom performance. Here’s JMU student Jamie Graeff:

GRAEFF: It’s kind of like, I don’t want to say a panicked state. But you just feel on edge and you almost like doubt everything you’re saying. It’s just like your head is constantly buzzing.

Graeff even worries about the way her anxiety is perceived by others. With the focus that many JMU classes put on working in groups and speaking up in class, this can be problematic.

GRAEFF: I feel like I’m at a disadvantage a lot especially in academic settings. I’m always worried that my introversion is perceived as a weakness.

Graeff will graduate in May. But she hopes that JMU will continue to work to help students gain a better understanding of how introverts process to curb that anxiety that introverts feel.

GRAEFF: If we’re being quiet in a group setting, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re not interested in the conversation or that we don’t have anything to say. Often times I do have a lot to say. It just takes me a minute to construct what I want to verbally put out there.

Even though Cobb has seen a generational shift in the way students deal with conflict, she also believes students today are faced with challenges that other generations have not had to deal with.

COBB: I really like the students. They’re delightful. They are a byproduct of their culture. But times change so you have to go with it.

For WMRA news, I’m Anna Saunders.