Stigma Against College Students With Mental Illness

Story by Shaelyn Barber

Diagnosed mental illness is on the rise, particularly for college students, according to the American Psychiatric Association. says that 25 percent of college students have a diagnosable mental illness. This means that one in four students have a mental illness that has been previously diagnosed or would be possible to diagnose if they chose to seek professional help.

PsychCentral says that some of the more common mental illnesses include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar, addiction, ADHD, and eating disorders. Each disease varies in severity and different people can be affected in very different ways. Cases where multiple disorders are present add to the complexity of the illnesses.

Mental illness is often overlooked because it is less visible than a physical disorder. It is impossible to tell if someone has a mental illness just by looking at them. Furthermore, there is a negative stigma surrounding mental illness. Because of these factors, many people do not seek professional help even if they are exhibiting symptoms.

As the conversation surrounding mental illness grows, students are becoming more aware of the many different aspects of mental illness. A lot of students feel that mental illness is an epidemic that isn’t taken very seriously.

“I have many friends and some family who suffer from a variety of mental issues,” Briana McLaren, a student at the University of Utah, said. “I know that mental illness is a serious issue that is not taken as seriously as it should within society.”

McLaren is diagnosed with Asperger’s, clinical depression, anxiety, and excoriation disorder (which is a disorder where one compulsively picks their skin). “When I was diagnosed with Asperger’s it seemed to answer a lot of questions I didn’t even know I had,” McLaren commented. After her diagnosis she was able to make connections between Asperger’s and her symptoms, such as difficulty with eye contact and social skills.

Mental illnesses and its symptoms can make everyday tasks very difficult at times. Madison Adams-Young is a student at the U who has OCD, body dysmorphia, and depression.  She described the paradox of living with both OCD and depression. “OCD is like an alarm blaring in my mind of all of the things I need to be doing, both real things such as homework and cleaning and ritualized things like hand washing and checking the locks,” she said. “The depression is the opposite in that it makes it so difficult to get everything done.” Lately it has been hard for her to complete schoolwork. “I usually do very well in school, but as of late it has been hard,” Adams-Young commented. “I don’t feel comfortable telling people, especially professors, as it makes me feel like I’m making excuses. I lie about being sick or having an appointment in order to cover up for a missed class or a late assignment.” Many students have similar experiences, especially when professors downplay mental illness and the impact it can have on a person’s life.

Jake Hanson is a student at the U who is diagnosed with Bipolar 1 with a mild form of psychosis. He started experiencing symptoms when he was sixteen. “I had unexplainable amounts of energy, never sleeping, and doing really risky stuff like running away for 5 days, stealing neighbor’s dogs, jumping out of my bedroom window thinking I could fly,” Hanson said. “Then after a few weeks of all this energy would come my down swing, staying in bed all day long for a whole week maybe two. I’d be so depressed for no reason, not wanting to talk or listen to my parents or good friends, no motivation to do anything.” Hanson recounted that people sometimes treat him differently after learning that he has Bipolar 1. “I don’t really care what people think about it, but I feel it’s safer not to share that part of me.  People act like themselves around me if they don’t know I’m bipolar, which is what I want, so I tend not to tell people.”

Atticus Edwards goes to the U and spoke to me about his experiences with Purely Obsessive OCD and anxiety. He commented that the stigma surrounding OCD is very different from that of mental illnesses with more visibly symptoms, like anxiety attacks. “OCD is kind of joked about a lot,” Edwards said.

Most of the students that I spoke to felt that there was a negative stigma surrounding mental illness and those who have mental illnesses. “I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that there is a stigma against those who have mental illnesses,” Adams-Young said.

Mental illness can be treated with disdain, disbelief, or even fear. Many do not understand it, and this misunderstanding makes it difficult for people who do not live with mental illness to imagine what it is like to have one. While the family and friends of Adams-Young do not treat her differently, she said “those who don’t experience the same things don’t really understand.”

Some do not believe that mental illnesses are ‘real’ and only exist in a person’s head. “I hear of people talking about mental illness as an “excuse” to slack off or to sleep or stay home,” Adams-Young said.

Hanson said, “people will associate any mental illness with ‘being crazy,’ which is a negative stigma in itself.”

Kris Glad has Bipolar 2, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety. Glad does believe that there is a negative stigma around mental illness, but has a unique way of combating it. “I make a lot of self deprecating jokes about being crazy and unable to function that people are never quite sure if they’re supposed to laugh or not. This might be a little counter-intuitive, but it kind of gives me some measure of control over how people view me, or at least in the sense that I have control over how they find out and when they form opinions of it,” Glad said.

Susan Chamberlain is a licensed psychologist and outreach coordinator for the University of Utah’s Counseling Center. She is hopeful that the thoughts and stigma surrounding mental illness are changing. She commented that in the baby boomer generation, going to a therapist was seen only as something for crazy people. “The stigma is kind of on the flip side as far as what I see, which is my problems aren’t bad enough for me to see a therapist, and so people will wait and wait and wait until they reach a crisis point,” Chamberlain says. She encourages people to speak out about their mental illnesses, as well as to seek help if they are experiencing symptoms or difficulties.

The Counseling Center at the U offers group, individual, and couples therapy sessions. Students can have up to twelve sessions in a calendar year, and each session is only 12 dollars. For more information, visit