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Wichita State counselors seek to help students cope with growing stress

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, at 6:20 p.m.

How to help

• Learn about risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems. Isolation and changes in sleep, appetite, mood, decision making and concentration are some signs to look for.

• Don’t be reluctant to help a friend or loved one. Offer hope and provide a referral.

• Everyone struggles. Remind yourself or others that seeking mental health care is a sign of strength, not weakness.

• Early intervention is important and can prevent more severe problems later.

Free online screening

Wichita State University offers free online screening at: http://webs.wichita.edu/?u=coutstctr1&p=/MentalHealthScreenings.

It also offers counseling for WSU students. For help, contact WSU Counseling and Testing Center, 318 Wilkie Hall, 316-978-3440, www.wichita.edu/counselingtesting.

Source: Maureen Dasey-Morales, Wichita State University

It is no surprise to Ciera Dockter that many students at Wichita State University feel depressed and near emotional collapse from overwork, as WSU mental health professionals are reporting these days.

Dockter has not sought the counselors’ help.

But she says she cries sometimes, has come near falling asleep at the car wheel — and recently hallucinated on a drive home in the dark. “Several crazed little kids were trying to attack me with axes,” she said.

Dockter is the sort of student who worries WSU’s director of counseling and testing, who says many students are suffering emotional strain from overwork and juggling jobs and family challenges with classes.

Maureen Dasey-Morales, the director, said the current generation of young people probably faces more stress than any previous. In addition to pressures they endure from today’s technological and social media world, many can’t get through college without working part time or full time, or piling up student loan or credit card debt. Many are caregivers to family members, she said. Many are well aware that the economy is weak and that they might struggle to find a job after they graduate.

Dockter, a junior, takes 15 hours of classes at WSU and works 35 hours a week at a store — the 4 p.m. to midnight shift. She maintains a 4.0 grade point average, she says. She’s vice president of her sorority.

Dockter may be a high achiever, Dasey-Morales said, but there are thousands like her on the WSU campus, struggling to achieve, but struggling also to stay emotionally stable.

Carla Rivera, for example, says she will be the first in her extended family to graduate from college, but she got pregnant at 17 and has faced a grueling uphill effort since then, juggling full-time classwork with a full-time job and motherhood.

Hollie Weatherburn, a member of the WSU women’s golf team, studies for classes or practices all her waking hours, while feeling lonely and separated from her family in England.

The stereotype of emotionally troubled students “is that they are unbalanced or unstable,” Dasey-Morales said. “But the truth is that most students who are suffering here are, in fact, highly functioning students. If we can get them through this period in their lives, they are all going to be awesome contributors as human beings.”

Thousands of students at WSU are as driven and as fully scheduled as Dockter, Rivera and Weatherburn, Dasey-Morales said. She worries about all of them.

The pressures on them are growing, Dasey-Morales said. Her staff, from this past July to February, has seen 300 more client appointments than in the same time period a year before.

She thinks the pressures of personal finances have become burdensome, as state support for universities has declined and as tuition and other costs for students have risen.

She can’t talk about individual cases because of confidentiality requirements but says she and WSU’s other counselors are seeing 90 to 95 students a week. They’ve recorded more than 4,700 appointments from July 2011 to July 2012.

And in a 2012 survey of WSU students, 83 percent of those surveyed answered “yes” when asked whether they had felt “overwhelmed” in the past 12 months. The survey was sent to all fall students, Dasey-Morales said; 1,596, or about 10 percent of students enrolled, responded, from a good cross section.

Seven percent of those surveyed said they’d seriously considered suicide in that time.

“That’s a lot of students,” Dasey-Morales said.

Of the 1,596 students surveyed, 12 percent were diagnosed with or treated for anxiety in the previous 12 months; 12 percent for depression; 7 percent for panic attacks; and 5 percent for insomnia.

More than 20 percent of WSU students reported that they’d driven vehicles after drinking in the previous month. That number worries Dasey-Morales, though in one way, it was good news. A similar survey of WSU students from 2010 showed 27 percent driving after drinking.

In the 2012 survey, 4 percent reported they’d hurt themselves deliberately in the previous year by cutting, head-banging, bruising or burning themselves. Fifteen percent said they “felt things were hopeless” in the previous two weeks. Forty-four percent reported feeling things were “hopeless” during the last 12 months.

Dasey-Morales said other questions the WSU students answered in the survey give some hints about underlying causes. Forty-one percent of students surveyed cited finances as a traumatic problem faced in the last 12 months. Seventeen percent cited a health problem of a family member as a trauma in the previous 12 months. “Death of a family member or friend”: 16 percent. Personal health issue: 19 percent. Sleep difficulties: 27 percent. Academics: 38 percent. Intimate relationships: 29 percent.

One other statistic stuck out to Dasey-Morales. Half the students surveyed said they’d felt “very lonely” in the previous 12 months.

All of these issues are a problem not only here, but nationally, Dasey-Morales said. A survey done in the spring of 2012 by the American College Health Association/National College Health Assessment turned up data similar to hers at WSU. Across the country, she said, students are battling debt, juggling school with jobs, family obligations and stress.

The national numbers regarding depression, loss of sleep and many other categories are roughly equivalent to what the WSU student survey found, with finances being significant. For example, where 41 percent of WSU students cited their finances as a “traumatic” emotional challenge, 34 percent of students nationally said the same. Twelve percent of students nationally said they’d been treated in the previous year for anxiety, 11 percent for depression – numbers almost identical to WSU’s.

The Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 prompted many schools, WSU included, to look more closely at mental health on campuses, Dasey-Morales said. She and her staff spend a lot of time talking, “telling people we exist,” putting up posters, coaxing people, as much as they can, to help themselves – and look out for each other. Often, when they speak at a gathering of students, one or two more students come forward with a story to tell and a request for help.

WSU also works closely with Comcare, the Sedgwick County agency that promotes good mental health locally. And the students themselves, through their student government association, have provided money for her office to work on prevention, she said.

There’s a strategy about much that WSU does, Dasey-Morales said. A 2010 survey showed 27 percent of students driving after drinking, with 4 percent reporting that they drove after binge drinking. Seeing that, Dasey-Morales and her staff focused on that problem, spreading the word about safety and getting everyone from students to law enforcement engaged in talking about binge drinking and drunk driving. She thinks that focus is at least partly responsible for reducing the driving-after-drinking number to 20.6 percent, and the driving-after-binge-drinking number to 2 percent.

Dockter, the high-achieving junior, knows many other students suffer from stress.

Weatherburn, a senior, is a full scholarship student, but as a member of the WSU women’s golf team, she knows a scholarship must be earned. If the golf game goes away, so does everything else. She earns it with a schedule that at times has reduced her to tears: golf for several hours a day, including 6 a.m. workouts three times a week. She takes 12 hours of classes, and studies four or five hours a day. If she travels to all the available tournaments in March, she’ll be on campus only 10 days that month.

“Lots of tears at times,” she said. “Especially in the beginning I felt homesickness, culture shock. I felt strong feelings and didn’t know why … started to dislike (American) culture,” she said. “I’m a little more used to it now, and see the positives. But it can be hard.”

A native of Manchester, England, she’s close to her parents and younger brother. So four years of separation left her at times feeling depressed. “I’ve changed a lot,” she said. She’s more independent, after solving problems by herself, but she’s a solitary person now.

None of the three women in this story has much of a social life; it’s all work.

After Rivera got pregnant at 17, her son’s father married her and helps her constantly, she said. But taking 13 hours of classes and working 40 hours at a local catalog company can take a toll. She makes meals also, reads to her son – and shuts herself in a closet once in a while to cry.

Sometimes, Rivera said, when her son sees her looking stressed or sad, he begins to pick up things to clean the house, although his idea of putting things away involves throwing everything in a pile in a corner.

But sometimes, she said, when he sees her looking stressed, he comes to her with a notebook.

“It’s OK,” she says he tells her. “I will help you.”

Then he scrawls some 4-year-old scribbles and hands the paper to her.

“You can turn this in for homework,” he says.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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