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Number of Millennials Seeking Mental Heath Help Jumps

One expert says the current generation of people in their 20s – often called millennials – cannot cope with problems the same way that other generations did.
One expert says the current generation of people in their 20s – often called millennials – cannot cope with problems the same way that other generations did.

Over the last 10 years, the number of university students seeking help for mental or emotional problems has grown sharply. Experts say millennials might be less able to cope with life stresses than previous generations.

The number of students seeking mental health help increased at five times the rate of new students starting college during that time, according to 2015 report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.

In addition, a 2015 report from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found anxiety to be a major problem for students.

Nearly half of all students who sought help in recent years said they felt anxious. In other words, the students said they felt unusually worried or afraid.

An additional 40 percent of students said they felt depressed.

Experts give several explanations for why the number of students seeking help for mental health issues is rising. One reason could simply be a change in American culture. In the United States, people are increasingly comfortable talking about mental health issues and bringing their problems to trained experts.

Cornell University students cross the college's Thurston Avenue Bridge in Ithaca, NY.
Cornell University students cross the college's Thurston Avenue Bridge in Ithaca, NY.

Another reason could be related to the current generation of young people attending universities today.

But one reason is surely higher education itself.

Ben Locke, executive director at the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, who also serves as the director of counseling and psychological services at Pennsylvania State University, says feeling worried and sad are normal parts of life.

But college is a difficult time when students want to make friends, find their identity and succeed academically.

"College being a place with high demands, lots of competition and lots of concern about being able to get a good job after college, certainly increases the, the level of stress that students experience," Locke said.

Giorgia’s story

Giorgia felt the stress of college life in a very severe way. She began her studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, in 2010. She wanted very badly to succeed there, but often worried she would fail.

Giorgia asked VOA not to share her surname.

Even before she went to college, Giorgia worried about things. At age 11, she was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD. OCD causes a person to focus intensely on the same thoughts and repeat the same behaviors over and over.

At McGill, Giorgia worried about her academic performance. She also worried about what she would do after college.

In her third year of school, Giorgia worried so much about her worrying that she began seeing a therapist. Her therapist suggested the medication called Adderall would help Giorgia with her OCD.

But as her final year at McGill grew closer, Giorgia only worried more.

She stopped eating regularly and did not sleep for weeks at a time.

Her medication only made the problems worse. Her mood changed wildly. She also began to believe that her friends — as well as complete strangers — were watching her.

"I was aware that it was crazy. But I also thought there was no other possible way that all these coincidences could be happening," Giorgia said. "And it really freaked me out."

Georgia stopped leaving her apartment. And because she lived far from home, her parents did not realize how serious her anxiety was.

Jason’s story

A young man named Jason also shared his story with VOA. Like Giorgia, he did not want to give his surname.

Jason is from Bethesda, in the northeastern U.S. state of Maryland.

Jason started seeing a therapist when he was seven years old. At that time, his therapist diagnosed him with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

This condition of the brain makes focusing for long periods of time difficult. It also affects a person’s ability to think clearly before making decisions.

Jason says having ADHD made school difficult for him throughout his life.

He adds that he also struggles with depression. His therapist diagnosed him with the condition when he was in high school.

Jason completed a two-year associate’s degree at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland, in the spring of 2007. He then began a bachelor’s degree program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County that fall.

But just as he began classes, his life changed in several major ways. His mother and father told him they were separating. Then his grandmother died.

Jason tried to stay focused on his studies. But the next year, his parents decided to make their separation permanent and get divorced. A month later, he received more horrible news: his best friend died.

Jason says all these things combined proved to be too much for him. Some days he was so sad he could not leave his bed. And then at one point, he considered suicide.

"I remember because I was driving home and I said to myself, ‘I wonder what would happen if I just yanked my steering wheel to the left and drove into one of these light poles. And I wonder who would come to my funeral? And I wonder if anyone would care?’"

As soon as Jason began thinking suicidal thoughts he knew he needed help, which he sought from a therapist. He also decided to stop studying at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2008.

Why millennials might face more problems

Giorgia and Jason are just two examples of the many students struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues.

Jane Clementi, the mother of a Rutgers University student who killed himself, looks at family photographs.
Jane Clementi, the mother of a Rutgers University student who killed himself, looks at family photographs.

David Reetz, who directs counseling and psychological services at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State, has ideas about why young people are having such a hard time.

Reetz is also a governing board member of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, a group of over 800 college counseling directors worldwide. He says the current generation of people in their 20s – often called millennials – cannot cope with problems the same way that other generations did.

Millennials are less able solve interpersonal conflict or to accept criticism, he says. These skills, he adds, are abilities that employers like for their workers to have.

However, millennials are not to blame, Reetz says.

Access to information about both good and bad aspects of life increased greatly over the last 30 years. He believes the parents of millennials caused their children to worry more because they worried more.

"I suspect that the parents of millennials parented in a very different way than previous generations. The parents of millennials parented with higher levels of anxiety. The parents of millennials were raised with much more exposure to threats within their communities, throughout the country, even now more internationally."

Reetz says parents of millennials spent more time supervising their children than other parents did. As a result, these young people had fewer chances to learn how to take risks or solve conflicts themselves.

He adds that social media also has had an influence. Websites such as Facebook and Instagram cause people to compare themselves to others in unfair ways.

But Richard McKeon, chief of suicide prevention for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), warns against making claims about how every member of a generation thinks or feels.

"There are certainly many changes in terms of the nature of neighborhoods, and communities, and family life and other issues over time that would make it hazardous to generalize about a whole generation of young people," McKeon said.

SAMHSA is a federal government agency that studies mental health issues in the U.S. Last June, the agency released a study of over 135,000 young people between the ages of 18 and 25. It found that young people in college are less likely to commit suicide with a plan than those who are not in college.

In other words, college students may suffer from mental health issues, but their conditions may not be as severe as those who are not in college.

McKeon also notes millennials are not the first generation of young people to face severe mental health issues. In the 1980s and 1990s, the suicide rate among youth in the U.S. reached levels that experts had never seen before.

What colleges and universities can do to help

All the experts VOA contacted for this story said they are pleased that more young people are seeking help for mental health issues.

In fact, Pennsylvania State University’s Ben Locke says a common concern is that colleges and universities do not have enough resources for students in need. Locke is Penn State’s counseling services director.

But David Reetz at the Rochester Institute of Technology notes that most colleges have experts students can meet with to discuss their problems. Therapy groups are common as well.

McKeon of SAMHSA adds that many other student support workers are now being trained to identify signs of mental health issues in students.

Giorgia never used the mental health support services McGill University offered. She finished her degree program in 2014 and stopped taking all medication over a year ago.

Giorgia says she feels much better, but she wishes she had been more willing to use the services at the school.

Jason did not use the mental health services his school offered either. But he did feel that speaking to the leader of the Jewish culture center on his school’s campus helped him.

Jason decided to return to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2012. He will complete his degree after one final semester this year.

The path to improving one’s mental health is never easy. But Jason says if students start to feel they have a problem, they should know there is nothing wrong with asking for help.

This story was reported by VOA's Learning English service.