Expert explains ‘huge’ increase in students with distress

Traci Callandrillo, director of American University's counseling center, shares thoughts on mental health trends among millennials.

Photo by Eleanor Greene Traci Callandrillo, director of American University's counseling center. //Photo by Eleanor Greene

Introduction and transcription by Trevor Smith/Matters of the Mind

Editor’s note: Responses were edited to provide context and clarity.

One in four American adults experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Though there is growing attention to mental health issues, the scope of the issues can be difficult to grasp.

Traci Callandrillo, Ph.D., the director of the counseling center at American University, spoke to American University’s Writing and Editing for Convergent Media class and answered questions. Callandrillo is a licensed psychologist in Washington, D.C., and has been with American University since 2007. She has served as assistant director for clinical services at the University of Texas at Austin. She currently serves as Vice President for the Professional Practice of the Society of Counseling Psychology.

Callandrillo, who says there is a huge increase in students experiencing distress, opened by sharing what she calls some positive trends:

Emotional honesty becoming widespread: “I think that has changed a lot from three or four generations ago when really no one was talking about the fact that they got sad sometimes or that they were impacted by something that happened in their life.”

Increased awareness of one’s identity: “That could be around race and ethnicity, that could be around sexual orientation, that could be around gender issues. I think the millennial generation has grown up with a culture that talks a lot more about those issues. That creates an expectation that just is part of humanity, that we’re different.”

Open dialogue surrounding college concerns: “You’re here to learn, but … college is also a time when you’re going to change and grow. There are downsides to that, but the fact that we can have those conversations I think is a success.”

‘You’re here to learn, but … college is also a time when you’re going to change and grow. There are downsides to that, but the fact that we can have those conversations I think is a success.’


But Callandrillo acknowledges that there is a steady increase in the number of students entering college with mental health issues.

Part of the reason includes high school events. “More and more students come to college already experiencing pretty serious mental health disruption,” she says, noting that the number has increased steadily since the ‘90s.

Callandrillo says once a student has experienced a “significant difficult event,” he or she is more likely to experience another one. “If you got depressed in high school and you need treatment, and it was a really difficult thing for you to recover from, you’re more likely to experience that again than someone who has never experienced that before.”

At one extreme is the Virginia Tech University massacre, when senior Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in the deadliest school shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history. Cho had been previously diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and had drawn a professor’s attention, but somehow managed to obtain multiple firearms.

What happened at Virginia Tech could happen at any university, she says. “There are students at that level of distress at all universities,”  she says. “What was important about how the field reacted to that horrible event was to realize that it’s important that universities have a way to communicate effectively and directly about students who are in distress.”

American University is among the top schools with high numbers of stressed students, she says. Callandrillo pointed to a National College Health Assessment, which in 2013 found that AU students are “above the national average” in terms of stress. She says one of the questions asks subjects if, in the last year, they have felt so stressed they couldn’t function. “Ninety-one percent of AU students answered ‘Yes,’”  she says.

Below are other excerpts of our class conversation with Callandrillo. In some cases, we rephrased questions for clarity.

How do you know whether an issue is increasing or just reflects a trend toward destigmatization?

“We can talk about how trends have increased, but that doesn’t mean that college causes you to get depressed. It doesn’t mean that any one thing is causing the other. Because of that trend though, I think where I would come from in terms of someone who thinks about the landscape of how to provide mental health care at a university, I just see the numbers increase. I hope there’s less stigma, but I’m also concerned because I know it’s not just that.”

Why do you think there’s an increased demand for emergency and urgent services?

Callandrillo says the increase is attributable in part to destigmatization and partly due to national trends. “There is a huge increase in students experiencing distress,” she says.

‘There is a huge increase in students experiencing distress.’


What does “in distress” mean?

“The industry standard is set by the perception of the individual. One person might feel in distress because they got a B on a test … For them, they experience that as a high level of distress. Another person is psychotic and they are having thoughts about killing their professors. I don’t really care which one it is, from the perspective that I need to treat that person in distress as someone who needs some urgent kind of service.”

Do you see a trend in who seeks counseling in terms of race?

“Historically, counseling centers used to be pretty much for white people and were run by white men, and mental health was developed by white men. That doesn’t mean that it was bad, just that there was a limited perspective in … how we think about the internal experience of human beings.”

“Something that I’m really happy about is that my field has shifted quite a lot. I would never bring someone into the counseling center that hadn’t really demonstrated to me what we frame as cultural competence. That doesn’t mean that they know everything, it does mean that they have some awareness of themselves and their identity and what they’re bringing in to their experience with another person … Our population is becoming much more diverse. To go back to what I was saying about millennials, the millennial generation is so much more diverse and open to that diversity, and sort of inherently comfortable with it. Again I’m speaking broadly, not in specifics, but there’s a lot of positive potential within that.”

‘The millennial generation is so much more diverse and open to that diversity, and sort of inherently comfortable with it. Again I’m speaking broadly, not in specifics, but there’s a lot of positive potential within that.’


Are counseling centers actively trying to inform underserved communities?

“The rate of ‘suicide attempt’ and ‘suicide completion’ in the same population of individuals who don’t go to school is much higher. People who come to school tend to have resources available to them that [people not in school] don’t have. I think a lot of what university counseling centers think about is how we really make sure that we maximize the number of people that we can reach and provide services to people who might not be able to seek it any other way. What’s tricky about that outside of students, is that at most universities the students are paying for the service. We at AU are not funded through a student fee, but it is part of your tuition. We take that very seriously, that we’re here for all of you and we wouldn’t use that resource to provide services to somebody who is not a student. And I tell you, that’s hard sometimes.”

 

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