Why Depression is Hitting College Students so Hard

March 9th 2015

Laura Donovan

Many high school students view senior year as a tedious waiting period before starting college, where the real fun begins. It's an exciting step into adulthood, but not without psychological challenges. The University of Pennsylvania was forced to reckon with this after six suicides took places within a 15-month time span, raising the question of whether the school's perfectionist culture is taking a toll on students. Just last month, Yale sophomore Luchang Wang died in an apparent suicide after expressing fears about not being readmitted to school after taking a year off. Several years ago, Cornell University had six student suicides in six months. 

Social pressure

Those are all elite East Coast schools, but college depression and accompanying suicide aren't simply problems for Ivy League institutions. The social expectations of college can be stressful, overwhelming, and can lead to depression. Suzanne Ciechalski, a freshman at St. John's University in New York, recently spoke to the New York Times about the way social media feeds college depression. 

"I feel like people spend a lot of time on social networks trying to create this picture of who they want to be. Maintaining that takes a lot of effort. I feel like being a teenager or young adult, the pressure to try and make people see you’re the best is really high," she said.

While post-grads are often flooded with engagement, pregnancy, and baby announcements on their Facebook feeds, college students might come across party or social outing photos that make them feel left out of the full higher education experiences. Campuses with a heavy Greek life presence could alienate those who chose not to rush or weren't granted bids. And sometimes even students within the Greek system feel like they are missing out. David Seeman, a counseling psychologist at Boston University, told BU Daily in 2011 that he's seen students from all walks of life take advantage of university mental health services, and that includes fraternity brothers and sorority sisters. "Any time you feel ostracized, not in the mainstream, or discriminated against, I think that can create some depression," he said. In Greek life, there's pressure to be a party person, and bad decisions can result from a need to maintain a wild, fun reputation. 

Academic pressure

It can be really lonely to attend college without friends or an established group of people, but that stress does not even include the actual academic work required in college. In response to the wave of suicides at U. Penn, Alison K. Malmon of mental health nonprofit Active Minds said the university needs to send a better message about what it means to be achieve great things, "We need to show students that perfection is not the only thing and that success looks like a lot of different things. Schools like Penn need to show their students what a typical course load should look like, what a typical night of sleep should look like, and what a typical Penn student looks like."

The first and even second year of college can be exhausting, difficult, and uncertain. Plus, because more people than ever are attending college, it's not enough to simply obtain a degree anymore. College students are in a rat race to secure prestigious internships and, eventually, high-paying jobs. That often requires extracurricular activity in addition to coursework (and one's social life). It's a lot for college students already feeling vulnerable about creating their adult identities. Given all of these pressures, it's important for colleges to bolster their mental health infrastructure to help stressed out students before it's too late.