Janaki Padmakumar struggled with depression throughout high school, but she didn’t expect mental health issues to impact her during her college education at the University of Florida.
“I had the attitude where I kind of thought, ‘Okay, if I think it will go away, it will go away.'” Padmakumar said. “But obviously it didn’t.”
She visited the UF Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC) at the end of her first semester, and made a serious effort to seek treatment the summer before her sophomore year. She realized she couldn’t fix her problems alone.
Padmakumar was shocked that she exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in addition to depression. This began a two-year journey of visits to the CWC to feel better.
“I feel like I have gotten to a significantly better place,” Padmakumar said. “I know my friends have noticed a change in me.”
While Padmakumar improved her mental health, and also became the education director for UF’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness: A Helping Hand For Gators , there are still many UF students who are suffering.
Academic stress and depression are increasing among UF students. 5,088 students were seen by the CWC in the 2016 to 2017 fiscal year, in comparison to 4,764 students the CWC saw in 2015-2016, according to Ernesto Escoto, the director of the CWC.
Alexis Elvy, president of UF’s NAMI chapter, said her organization constantly hears from an increasing number of students who are anxious and stressed out. She said that when the club originally started over a year ago, there was small turnout, but soon there were more people than chairs at meetings.
UF’s NAMI works closely with NAMI Gainesville, Elvy said. NAMI Gainesville looks for college-aged students to volunteer with the Ending the Silence program, a program that provides young adults with a history of mental illness an opportunity to share their experiences with middle and high school students in Alachua County.
“They kind of help guide us,” the third-year psychology major said. “They connect us to the community, and we help connect them to college-aged students.”
Padmakumar said she has shared her story as a peer presenter through the Ending the Silence program.
“It’s very rewarding,” Padmakumar said. “Over the years, I’ve had a difficult time opening up about my own experiences, but being in the program has really allowed me to connect with other people better. I’m a little bit more of an open book now.”
Presenting at The Interface Youth Shelter was most memorable for Padmakumar. She particularly remembered getting thanked by one girl whose stepmother refused to believe that her daughter suffered from mental illness.
“They will feel the kind of things we are presenting about, but they don’t know that it is okay to ask for help,” Padmakumar said.
In addition to the presentations given by college-aged individuals, lead presenters from NAMI Gainesville educate students on topics related to mental health and coping with stress.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t get any education on mental health,” Elvy said. “The onset of many mental health conditions is adolescence, so it is really, really necessary that young adults are educated on it.”
UF’s NAMI chapter is planning to partner with a diverse group of organizations, from health-related clubs, to sororities and fraternities, to have more influence on the community.
While Elvy has never experienced the mental health issues some of her friends have faced, she knows what it’s like to be a stressed student. She said mental health is an individualized experience that can be cared for in different ways, and there are things students can do beyond the UF Counseling and Wellness Center or NAMI.
“I know some people will find solace in going to church or being out in nature,” Elvy said. “I know for me, I like to draw. I like art. I think it’s really important to take a break.”
Professional help on campus
Ernesto Escoto said mental health concerns are an increasing problem for students on campuses.
“In college, mental health concerns are more likely to interfere in education than the common flu or cold,” Escoto said. “But there is a higher risk of not only their well-being, but also their academic performance being impacted in a negative way by mental health concerns.”
Escoto said that UF students might experience a high level of stress because UF is ranked a top 10 public university, which creates higher expectations for student performance.
“They might think they don’t belong here and suffer quietly or struggle to adjust to a location away from home, both of which lead to poor performance and stress,” Escoto said.
The reported amount of student stress and depression has increased. In 2015 to 2016, 1,964 UF students indicated academic distress and 2,292 indicated sadness or depression at their triage CWC appointment. The numbers rose in 2016 to 2017 with 2,617 students indicating that they had academic distress and 2,993 indicating sadness or depression, Escoto said.
The CWC is seeing about 10 percent of the student body, Escoto said.
Unless they have an emergency, students who go to the CWC are placed on a waitlist after an initial appointment if there are no more spots available. After an average of 15 to 17 days later, students receive a phone call to schedule a follow-up appointment.
The CWC currently has 32 full-time counselors and hopes to add six more by spring with additional school funding, Escoto said.
In addition to the CWC, there are multiple other resources for students to seek help like the treatment centers for substance abuse and obsessive-compulsive disorder. When students have concerns outside of the scope of services the CWC offers, they are referred to other university and community providers.
Escoto encourages students who are dealing with high levels of stress to talk to their friends.
“Sometimes just learning that other people are going through similar circumstances can be validating enough to relieve some of that stress,” Escoto said.
He also mentioned that if the stress begins interfering with students’ ability to maintain relationships and succeed in school, they should consider seeking help from the CWC or another resource.
Depending on their personal needs, some students might need a handful of sessions, while others might only need one or two.
Kaitlyn Farnell is one student who received help at CWC counseling services. She is currently stressed about deciding what to do upon graduation, and visiting the CWC has been beneficial to her.
“This has helped me tremendously,” she said. “I feel a sense of comfort after speaking with the counselors.”
The sophomore said every student should get the opportunity to speak to someone. She would have wanted to talk about her transition to UF had she known about the CWC her freshman year.
Gizem Toska, the assistant director of outreach and consultation for the CWC, said that students are first reached by the CWC at orientation. CWC services are advertised after this through in-class presentations, digital signage, print materials, emails, campus fairs, social media, mini-campaigns and various other resources.
“It is very important for us to provide practical information that students can use in their day-to-day life,” she said.
Resources beyond UF
In certain cases, the CWC will direct students to the Alachua County Crisis Center. The center offers 24/7 crisis and suicide counseling phone lines, as well as emergency walk-in appointments and Care Teams for those who need in-person contact.
Ariel Drescher, the clinical community specialist for the Alachua County Crisis Center, said students have access to all community services.
It’s important to seek help during a crisis, and those who don’t seek help put themselves in danger, Drescher said.
“There is danger in crisis, of course, but there’s also opportunity,” she said. “If people get the support they need, it can be an opportunity to grow.”
Drescher encouraged students to reach out to those who could be struggling with mental health problems.
“If their friend is acting differently than normal, they should say, ‘Hey, I noticed that you have seemed a little different lately,'” Drescher said. “There are people that do care.”
The Alachua County Crisis Center reaches out to people as much as they can. The center has tabled at various events, and does peer support training sessions for different organizations, schools and agencies.
The Alachua County Crisis Center’s volunteers are made up of a cross-section of Alachua residents and students.
According to Drescher, although the Alachua County Crisis Center has a large presence in the community, there are still people who don’t know about it, and those people need to be reached.
Students and community members in crisis
Those in crisis can contact the Alachua County Crisis Center at 352-264-6789. Students can additionally contact the CWC at 352-392-1575 to set up an evaluation with a counselor.