There has been an intense rise in cases of mental illness among college students and adolescents since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Around one in three students experience significant depression or anxiety, and up to 44 percent reported having symptoms of either of the two. In the past, the most prominent threats to the lives of young people were smoking, teen pregnancy, and drunk driving among others. Now, it’s mental illness.
Recently, there has been a movement to start discussing mental health issues among adolescents and young adults on college campuses. This has had important implications in fighting against the epidemic of mental illness, but there is much more that needs to be done.
Adolescents are being pushed to their limits in an unprecedented way. Those who attend an institution like the College understand the high levels of stress high school students experience: waking up early in the morning, attending an eight-hour school day, working a job, participating in sports and extracurricular activities, and completing rigorous coursework. By the time students get to college, they are burnt out and often don’t have coping mechanisms to deal with the stress of living alone, taking care of themselves, and completing school work. More and more, students aren’t completing readings, doing homework, or attending classes. So much of our lives as young people are focused on getting into college by making perfect grades with stellar extracurriculars, or getting recruited to play at school. Once you get into that selective school, the flexible free time, weaker support structures, and responsibility for one’s own health can be overwhelming as they contrast with the rigid schedules often engineered and pushed by parents.
Participating in college athletics is a unique pressure. Hours spent in practice, lifting, and with your team are long, and pressure can build to perform at a high level, on top of a rigorous academic schedule. So much time in high school is spent attempting to get “recruited,” which is a process wherein coaches select students and help them with the College admissions process. The amount of time spent on sports year-round gets in the way of academic obligations frequently and can make it nearly impossible to pursue other interests on campus. This can cause high levels of stress, loss of interest in daily activities, and low self-esteem, all of which are symptoms of depression.
However, people are talking about mental health on campus within established organizations like Hope Happens Here. The group holds panels and events dedicated to spreading awareness about mental health at the College, specifically in athletics. They host panel events in which they have various student-athletes present and talk about their experiences with mental health as student-athletes in a department-wide attempt to open up a dialogue and break the stigma around talking about mental health.
For a long time, mental illness has been a very taboo, or just hard to talk about, subject. The work that Hope Happens Here and other similar groups are doing is very important progress in counteracting the overall silence surrounding topics of mental health on campus. Talking about mental illness has become more widely accepted in the past decade, compared to the large stigma that those struggling experienced before.
Yet, depression, anxiety, and suicide rates have skyrocketed among young people in the last ten years. We are clearly in a health crisis that some sources call an epidemic, and young people are calling out for help. Groups like Hope Happens Here are doing the important job of opening up the conversation around mental illness, but we have a long way to go.
We live in a culture that values work — doing anything for the grade, the internship, the approval of our professors, and the advancement toward the next step. For student-athletes, this list of people to impress includes coaches. No one will argue with me when I say that this is extremely harmful to people’s overall well-being and can sometimes lead to symptoms of mental illness in people who most likely wouldn’t be experiencing it.
If overworking is the root cause, why can’t we get out of our own way? We refuse to step away from the corporate hustle culture, which looks like refusing to take breaks, sleep in, or skip class when we’re sick. At the end of the day, when everything becomes too much, it leads to burnout and symptoms of depression and anxiety. The pressure to perform is still there, but overwhelmedness, low self-esteem, and extreme fatigue make it difficult to complete the work. Anxiety about performing in a sport, making good grades, and getting a high-status job or internship may consume people’s lives.
This happens all while being constantly reachable, by professors via email and by coaches via text. We are always expected to answer the call. Technological advancement has changed our academic lives, and it is indispensable to learning in the modern day but also inescapable. It blends work life with personal life, allowing us to check email and Moodle on our phones, being constantly bombarded with grades, new assignments, and responses to internship applications, among other things.
Student life hasn’t always been like this, and it doesn’t need to be. We need to change the way we conceptualize work, school, and extracurriculars. Until then, young people will continue to struggle with symptoms of mental illness, and we will be complicit in our own suffering. Groups on campus are opening up the conversation, but we have to continue having it by taking pressure off ourselves, taking days off without guilt, and going easier on ourselves when we mess up. We may never change the American hustle culture that got us here, but we can be nicer to ourselves in the meantime.
~ Hannah Perfetti ’25