OpEd – Anxiety and College Students: An Invisible Illness?

by Hannah Butcher

Are you really having an anxiety attack, or are you just having a bad day? It can’t be that bad. Out of sight, out of mind. If you can’t see it, it can’t happen. This can be the attitude towards anxiety disorders. And it’s true- you can just be having a really bad day. However, if a constant feeling of fear or avoidance of things get in the way of your daily life, it can be much more than a bad day. College students feel the pressure more than ever. In fact, the competition to even get admitted to college is a huge stressor in itself. Balancing vigorous academics, cramping in dormitories (often without A.C.), and transitioning to a seemingly new world is the perfect recipe for anxiety. And I’m not talking about the light nervousness before an exam anxiety. I’m talking about the serious stuff.

Generalized anxiety disorder is defined by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America as “excessive, exaggerated anxiety and worry about everyday life events with no obvious reasons for worry. People with symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder tend to always expect disaster and have a constant worry about health, money, family, work, or school”. Also known as GAD, it affects 6.8 million adults each year. That’s 3.1% of the American population. And the ADAA says that 75% of those affected by an anxiety disorder will experience it before they turn 22. From these people, many of them do not seek treatment. According to National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four college students have a diagnosable mental illness. That lecture of five hundred students? About 130 of them can be diagnosed with a mental illness. From these students, 40% of them do not seek help, even though 80% of those affected say that it even got in the way of their academic responsibilities. So, why don’t students speak up?

I think there are several reasons, but the biggest one has to be fear and shame. There is a negative connotation that comes along with “mental illness”.  Students may believe that they are damaged in some way, and that this can hinder their career path or life at college. Addressing the problem is one of the hardest things to do. People believe that if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. However, not acknowledging an anxiety disorder can lead to an even larger, even more difficult obstacle. And more surprisingly (but extremely common) is that students don’t know that they have an anxiety disorder. There is a limited amount of awareness on what anxiety is and where students can reach out for help, especially in larger colleges. And when those resources are found, trying to schedule an appointment is no easy task.

The other day, I called my college’s counselling center, hoping to set up an appointment. They are backed up, inevitably, which I expected. I asked when the next available appointment was, and the woman stated next semester. That’s about five months away. I couldn’t believe it. She immediately told me that there were resources locally that I could contact. I took down their information and continued the goose chase. When I got through all of the information with them, the second woman stated that the total upon my first visit would be $110. Huh? I felt discouraged at that point, and that it would be easier for me to just continue lying in bed and wish my anxiety away. Between school, work, no car, and the $20.46 in my bank account, I didn’t see any possible answer.

And I know I’m not the only one who has felt this way. College students can rarely afford the limited resources offered to them. It’s important for physicians to keep in mind that these students cannot afford the transportation and/or cost of treatment, in one of the most stressful and anxiety-inducing times of their life. It is unfortunate and ironic.

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