SITTING IN CHAPEL ON JANUARY 27, I found myself holding back tears. The 28-minute chapel address by Dr. Anthony Bradley of The King’s College in New York—arguably one of the most powerful of the year—was met with a standing ovation from all who sat in Edman Memorial Chapel that morning.
Referencing Psalm 23 as encouragement, Dr. Bradley’s sermon addressed a startling and uncomfortably relatable fact: college students currently represent the most stressed cohort possibly in all of history. Citing the American College Health Association, he noted that one in six college students has been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety. Based on his experience and reviewed research, Dr. Bradley called attention to a level of perfectionism that is “toxically weaving itself” through campuses across the nation, and how we as Christians should view our perceptions of inadequacy through the lens of Psalm 23.
Recent research has supported the idea that college students are indeed more stressed and anxious than older generations. In its 2015 release of the Stress in America survey, the American Psychological Association (APA) reported that younger generations—specifically millennials—indicated anxiety levels above the national average and were more likely to report increased stress and resulting symptoms. This data corresponds with that of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, which states that 50.6 percent of college students utilizing campus mental health services reported anxiety as a primary concern.
So why is it that college students—including those enrolled at Wheaton—are experiencing these increased levels of anxiety?
To better understand this phenomenon, we talked to Dr. Terri Watson, associate dean and associate professor of psychology; Dr. Sandi Rueger M.A. ’89, associate professor of psychology; Allison Ash, dean of student care and graduate student life; and Dr. Toussaint Whetstone M.A. ’07, director of the Wheaton College Counseling Center (WCCC), as well as notable alumni to get a grasp on what is causing Wheaton College students to stress—and how the College is responding.
THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM
“We know that the Bible is full of admonitions and reassurances that we do not have to fear or be anxious, so Christians often think that it is bad to feel anxiety and fear,” says Dr. Rueger.
She notes that anxiety and fear are naturally wired physiological responses to stressors, and are healthy in fight-or-flight situations. However, when stress does not require physical response—“which is often the case in our 21st century world,” says Dr. Rueger—or when our fight-or-flight response kicks in when there are no actual threats, this can cause physical illness and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
One stressor all college students share is that of academic performance. While a moderate stress level can be an important motivator in academics, when stress drops below or rises above this optimal level—due to low expectations of one’s performance in the classroom or unrealistically high expectations of one’s self—it can impair functioning and feed anxiety, says Dr. Rueger. Wheaton students, as attendees of one of the most rigorous Christian colleges in the country, are not exempt from this academic-related anxiety.
“I think that one of the greatest things about Wheaton students is that they want to be excellent. They want to do things well,” says Allison Ash, adding that she is inspired by Wheaton students’ commitment to excellence. However, there can also be a shadow side of these qualities. She notes, “If students believe ‘I have to be this perfect person, and if I’m not then something is wrong with me,’ that can create a lot of anxiety.”
Dr. Whetstone agrees, noting that Wheaton College students have a particular issue with “internalization,” or suppressing negative thoughts and feelings. Implicit and explicit pressure to achieve perfection academically and spiritually feeds students’ innate tendency to hide imperfections, such as mental health concerns, from one another.
“It seems a little backwards,” Dr. Whetstone says. “We should feel more freedom to be open with each other, but that’s not always the case.”
Dr. Jon Ebert M.A. ’00, Psy.D. ’03, associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences and associate clinical professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, also notes that the millennial generation is presented with an unprecedented amount of information, and a social pressure to respond.
According to a 2015 study by Pew Research Center, 90 percent of young adults, including college students, are social media users.
“This makes it increasingly more difficult to create boundaries around the professional and personal,” Dr. Ebert says.
A study conducted by the University of California-Los Angeles noted that anxiety began to affect 18 percent of all American adults each year “around the turn of the millennium”—just years after most current college-aged students were born. From birth through college, American millennials have grown up in a nation of heightened anxiety. The study also mentioned “loss of community,” “information overload,” and a “negative attitude toward uncomfortable emotions” as top causes of increased mental health concerns in the United States.
The study also mentioned “loss of community,” “information overload,” and a “negative attitude toward uncomfortable emotions” as top causes of increased mental health concerns in the United States.
Perhaps one of the more oxymoronic stressors is that of information overload, as mentioned by Dr. Ebert. While Facebook, Twitter, and other internet revelations present millennials with an increased ability to connect, these actually create an invisible barrier for person-to-person connection. The distancing effect of increasingly available media, Dr. Whetstone notes, is important for mental health care providers working with today’s college students to understand.
Finally, despite widespread mental health awareness campaigns and increased service provision, negative perceptions of less than desirable feelings such as sadness or fear remain. According to mental health experts, these feelings have yet to be normalized. Dr. Terri Watson says the College and the WCCC have made “great strides in reducing negative stigma associated with mental health symptoms and treatments.” Dr. Watson believes the most important contribution to this effort is made when administration, faculty, and student leaders speak personally and openly about symptoms, struggles, and the value of seeking out professional counseling for a variety of concerns.
“By normalizing the need for mental health care, leaders break the stigma and help to clear a pathway for students to seek help when needed.”
Over the past three years, Wheaton College has made monumental leaps in its support of the mental health of its students. Most notably, there is no longer a waitlist to receive services at the Wheaton College Counseling Center, thanks to Dr. Whetstone and his highly capable clinical and administrative staff.
In 2013, the waitlist for counseling services at Wheaton prevented a number of students from receiving care for months on end. The high demand for services coupled with low intake capacity presented not only an obstacle to only an obstacle to care, but a safety issue for the College.
“You never know what issues are lingering out there, and research suggests that 70 percent of completed suicides on college campuses happen among individuals who never set foot in a counseling center,” says Dr. Whetstone.
Dr. Whetstone, a graduate of Wheaton College Graduate School and Loyola University Chicago’s Ph.D. program in Counseling Psychology, completed a doctoral psychology internship at the University of Notre Dame where he witnessed the campus counseling center successfully provide counseling services without accruing a waitlist. Dr. Whetstone remembered that, at Wheaton, the Counseling Center would often have a waitlist by the end of September during most academic years, so he made it a personal goal to “somehow bring my knowledge of Notre Dame’s clinical services model back to Wheaton College.” Ash notes that the ability to eliminate the counseling center waitlist was a priority in the search for a new director in 2013, and Dr. Whetstone fit the mold. He was able to eliminate the waitlist less than a year after he was hired.
Another recent addition to students’ support system is "Let’s Talk," a weekly program hosted by the Counseling Center that provides a confidential space where students can go and talk to a counselor. Rather than making the trek to North Harrison Hall, students can now informally consult with individuals from the Counseling Center on Tuesday mornings in the Beamer Student Center. The campus also hosted several events about eliminating negative stigmas surrounding mental health and responding to eating disorders during the 2016-17 academic year, and revamped suicide prevention protocols for Residence Life. Ash says an ongoing goal is to find more ways to empower the student community to help their peers.
For Dr. Whetstone, becoming an even more “multiculturally competent” Counseling Center is essential. Noting the immense variation of social identities represented in humanity, he says that it is crucial to understand how each student experiences stressors differently.
“And we’re not doing a great job of creating a safe space for students unless we understand how various social identities intersect and the meaning that can be made of this phenomenon for each individual,” he says.
The goal of increasing multicultural competence is echoed through the training of WCCC counselors and staff, and Dr. Whetstone also visits various groups across campus to extend a personal invitation to students and further vocalize his mission. This past year, new events and support groups, such as the Students of Color Support Group, examined race- and culturally-specific issues relevant to students. In the coming academic year, the Counseling Center will partner with the Chaplain’s Office in providing support for LGBTQ students.
“It’s very important to me,” says Dr. Whetsone. “I want to make sure that students from all backgrounds feel the WCCC is a safe place for them to come and receive care that is competent, compassionate, confidential, and nonjudgmental. I believe that all students need help at some point, and we are honored to provide it.”
For the 2017-18 academic year, the WCCC hopes to celebrate another year without a waitlist while addressing the specific needs of each individual student at Wheaton College.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT STUDENT CARE AT WHEATON, VISIT WHEATON.EDU/STUDENTCARE