As autumnal clouds and darkening days settle over Foggy Bottom each year, many students find their spirits diminishing in proportion to the daylight.
While the majority of college students will inevitably fall victim and quickly recuperate from intervals of unhappiness, a large proportion find themselves trapped in an endless cycle of depression and apathy.
A 2003 survey conducted by the American College Health Association concluded that 30 percent of college students suffer from an anxiety disorder or depression, while over 40 percent reported feeling “so depressed, it was difficult to function” at least once during the year.
The problem proved relevant to GW in 2002, when the school advanced to sixth place in the “Least Happy Students” category within The Princeton Review’s “Best 357 Colleges.”
Although suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students as a whole, depression and its causes became issues of particular importance at GW after the loss of three students to suicide in the last year.
“I certainly think it’s been a bit of a blow,” said Andrea Gaynor, a postdoctoral fellow at the University Counseling Center. “People are increasing their vigilance, trying to learn more about depression and trying to take care of themselves and watch out for their friends more.”
Upon returning to the United States after studying abroad last spring, senior Lauren Bacalis was shocked and saddened to learn that one of GW’s suicide victims had attended high school with her brother. Her sadness quickly translated into awareness and sensitivity to the moods of those around her, she said.
“I think there were probably campus deaths before this, but not to the extent that I can even remember them,” Bacalis said. “I’m probably more aware of how people act now if I see they’re depressed. If someone told me they were depressed before, I would think they were fine, but now maybe I would suggest they talk to someone, not just blow them off.”
Freshman Rachael Whitley learned of the deaths prior to arriving on campus and said she was not surprised at the news.
“I didn’t really see it as something out of the ordinary because depression is so widespread among students,” Whitley said. “This is more than a GW problem, it’s a national issue.”
Closely linked with depression, many other mental disorders, such as hyper-anxiety, bipolar disorder, manic depression, and a range of eating and social disorders manifest themselves during the college years. Often these conditions result from a biological vulnerability but remain hidden until certain circumstances cause them to appear, Gaynor said.
Stuart Sotsky, a former GW professor and active depression analyst, has spent much of his professional career observing the common threads that plague university students and make them susceptible to depression. A wealth of factors that uniquely affect young adults transitioning between the irresponsibility of childhood and the pressures of the adult world can detonate these disorders, Sotsky said.
Separation from home and family, sleeping and eating patterns, weather and environments. and changes in therapists if the individual was receiving previous treatment, can all play a crucial factor. “I think particularly for beginning students in freshman year, it’s a very difficult transition,” Sotsky said.
Social scenarios such as increased competition in a wider academic pool and the pressure to use drugs or alcohol can be devastating.
Sometimes students will try to self-medicate when they’re feeling low,” Sotsky said. “But some drugs can actually worsen the effects of depression.”
Parents sending their children to college often expect counseling services to counteract and eliminate such issues before they spiral out of control. Recent investigations have indicated, however, that many universities, including GW, lack the funds and resources to properly address student health concerns.
“I don’t want to blame the school, but counseling is where the school is lacking,” Whitley said. “They should remove the financial burden of counseling for students. I’ve been depressed before and if someone is thinking of suicide, a phone number is not going to help them. Something needs to be set up before the point of suicide is the only option,” she said, alluding to the hotline available to students when the University Counseling Center is closed.
After discussing the recent suicide of sophomore Susan Shin in a psychology class, senior Dany BouRaad conducted a personal investigation into late-night options for distressed or suicidal student on the Foggy Bottom campus. Students are advised to dial the University Police Department between 5 p.m. and 8:30 a.m. in case of emergency.
Doing so, BouRaad became mired in a bureaucratic maze highlighted by several long minutes of waiting on hold and an officer repeatedly directing him to a variety of alternative phone numbers. Eventually, a supervisor answered, gave him the number for the then-closed University Counseling Center, and promptly hung up.
“The way I was treated was not conducive to any sort of help,” BouRaad said. “I’m just glad I was only calling for information purposes. If someone was in a crisis, being put on hold like that could exacerbate the situation. You could imagine someone injuring themselves or someone else because of the lack of attention being paid to them when they’re calling out for help.”
Still, many are perplexed at the seemingly random and dramatic increase in the number of suicide cases at GW and other prominent universities. New York University has endured six suicides in the past year, but reported none in the previous seven, Josh Taylor, an NYU spokesman said.
“Students are attending these very competitive schools, where 25 years ago they would not have been able to attend.” Taylor said. “Thanks to new medications that are available and increased counseling services, we’re seeing more students that have had a history of depression.”
Sotsky said students that commit suicide can also prompt others to follow their path.
“Sometimes within small communities there can be a contagious quality,” he said. “Simply knowing that someone else has been desperate and has taken that step may intensify the feelings that an individual was harboring.”
Whatever the cause, with 11,000 people falling victim to suicide each year, experts across the field have called for increased vigilance and attention in noticing and responding to the warning signs of depression.
“People are often reluctant to go to others, but are often very relieved if someone speaks to them about it because they were hoping someone would notice and come to them,” Sotsky said. “Most people can get better within a matter of weeks, but in order to do that, they must get help. If not, it could lead to suicide.”