Lehigh students, and college students nationwide, are experiencing higher levels of anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness.
Ian Birky, the director of counseling and psychological services at Lehigh, said the main cause for poor mental health in students is loneliness.
“Too many feel alone, whether it’s walking into a cafeteria or into a party or a library or the fitness center,” Birky said.
Nova Stoller, ‘21, the safety and wellness chair of Student Senate and, full disclosure, a photographer for The Brown and White, said Lehigh is a high-stress environment where students are under a tremendous amount of pressure.
“All this work that hits you in waves, where you don’t have anything for weeks and then you can’t breathe,” Stoller said. “I see personalities flip.”
The statistics on student mental health speak for themselves.
Birky said his data show 31 students reported they were “in crisis” between January and April 2017. But for those same four months in 2018, 53 students reported they were “in crisis.”
Reports of suicide considerations rose from 64 in January-April 2017 to 73 in January-April 2018.
Though the size of Birky’s staff has remained constant, the Counseling Center saw 537 clients between January and April 2017 and 630 between January and April 2018.
Despite the circumstances, Birky has managed to find a sense of relief.
He said it has been 20 years since a Lehigh student committed suicide while enrolled in classes and living on campus. Based on national averages and the university population, he said a suicide “should” statistically happen every two to three years.
“We’ve had some major attempts and only by the grace of God did they not die,” Birky said. “The biggest fear is suicide. It’s so devastating when that happens, it just tears campuses apart.”
With the current student population, Birky believes there should be three more therapists on staff to avoid burnout and meet demand. He said there are not enough therapists to see all students who seek help within a week.
“We are pushed to the limit,” Birky said. “I’ve messaged that to the administration. There are plans to increase the student body by 1,500, we definitely need more therapists. There’s no doubt. They know that.”
A recent study conducted by Cigna, a health insurance company, found that 48 percent of college-aged U.S. adults reported feelings of loneliness. Birky said the increase in connectivity via social media doesn’t necessarily come with deeper intimate connections and might be a factor contributing to loneliness.
This loneliness reaches a swath of the student population — Birky estimates that up to 20 to 40 percent of students occasionally struggle with a level of anxiety or depression so painful it takes their breath away, makes it difficult to feel happy and makes it difficult to leave their rooms to study or go to class.
Christopher Mulvihill, the associate dean of students, said his biggest concern is when students turn to hard alcohol to cope with mental health problems. Birky said in his experience, it is hard to find a Lehigh student who doesn’t consume alcohol. And Stoller said she believes there is a high rate of substance abuse on campus.
Mulvihill said he sometimes sees students’ mental health issues manifested in conduct issues, which is when he intervenes.
“Students are more aware of their own mental health issues,” Mulvihill said. “We have students here who need help. When the help is there and the student is not utilizing it, that’s when problems occur.”
Mulvihill said Lehigh’s large engineering and business schools, high participation in Greek life and the socioeconomic status of the typical student make students more susceptible to issues with alcohol compared to students at other universities.
However, he said only 10 to 12 percent of Lehigh students interact with the conduct office, which falls in line with college averages on a national scale.
Birky believes the image-conscious campus culture relates to student mental health in that students constantly feel they need to be connected and in control.
“The problem lies in when people feel reluctant or hesitant to talk about the dark side of their experience — where their pain is at, where they’re not so confident, where they’re worried,” Birky said. “That imbalance is what gives rise to mental health problems.”
Alex Hannaby, ‘19, the president of Lehigh’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has dedicated herself to combating the stigma associated with mental health issues, which she said often prevents students from seeking help.
“It can be hard at times with the stigma to talk about mental health, especially at a school that’s very academically focused,” Hannaby said. “It’s easier to push it away. But it’s OK to not be OK, and we need to make an effort as a campus to be accepting of those around us and be able to talk about these tough issues with our peers.”