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Counseling Services Increase at ECU Amid Apparent Hightened Anxiety

The Black Sheep Online

There was a spike in counseling service appointments last academic year and a major cause of concern is a lack of coping skills regarding the uncertainty of life like failure and adjusting to new environments. It mirrors a nationwide trend among college-aged students, and as Chris Thomas reports it’s only the tip of the iceberg facing millennials.

Some members of East Carolina University’s student body are anxious – even before classes begin.

“It feels pretty great, it’s kind of scary, I’ve never really done anything like this, especially not having family here, it’s a little stressful.” 

That’s Misty, a freshman from Concord, North Carolina. She’s studying ecology and evolutionary biology. When we caught up with her, it was her second day on campus.

Move-in week is in full swing at ECU. Parking is hard to come by and it’s hard to turn without seeing an undergraduate’s sweaty face or a tense, beleaguered parent.  

“I’m really looking forward to learning something new. I picked a major I really didn’t know a lot in. So, I’m excited to learn new things and definitely make new friends.”

That anxiety is hardly exclusive to lower classmen.

John is a senior and studying finance.

“Sometimes when I have a lot of work in front of me, I get anxious, but most of the time, when I deal with it, is…that’s when I work the best – when I’m anxious, when I’m really stressed out…I perform the highest. So, I don’t really mind getting that anxious, but it definitely affects people in different ways.”

Anxiety is one of the defining attributes of the most recent group of students at the university, Dr. Valerie Kisler-van Reede said.

She’s director of ECU’s Center for Counseling and Development Services and has been on staff since 1997.

"Depression used to be the primary concern that students presented with. And that has been a definite shift. Now the top reason why students come to the counseling center is definitely anxiety. We’re seeing students feeling much more worried and anxious. Definitely presented with panic attacks. And I think it’s just a lot more common to feel worried and anxious and unsettled in our society as a whole.”

A primary issue? Resilience, even with universal challenges of everyday life – sometimes called “adulting.”

“What we would normally find as negative experiences that everyone experiences – things like failing a test or a relationship break-up. So just normal, negative experiences.”

Counseling services had more than 9,000 appointments during the last academic year, according to data from ECU’s Division of Student Affairs. That’s a nearly 20 percent increase from the previous year.

The staff at counseling and development has more than doubled over the past two decades and two counselors were added in the past year. According to figures from Dr. Virginia Hardy, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, the price tag for fiscal year 2017 is more than $780,000.

“It was a gradual uptick, I think probably for 3 to 5 years. The last couple of years it’s been like ‘wham!’ I mean, truly ‘what happened?’ And so, that’s what got our attention.”

It’s been implied that these new hires are associated with an “adulting program” at ECU. Dr. Hardy said ‘adulting’ wasn’t in her vocabulary until earlier this month.

“The word ‘adulting?’ I had not heard until I saw it in the media. That was the interesting thing about all of that. ‘Resilience’ is what we’re talking about. It is ‘how do we help our young people transition into college, throughout college, and after college.’”  

A possible element in play is an excessive role parents are playing in their child’s affairs – even after they’ve left for university. Dr. Hardy said students arrive on the campus with co-opted definitions of personal success.

“I’m not sure that we’re…at a place where the individuals can define success for themselves – not what momma and daddy may want or what society may say is the success but what success looks like for me because that success may be completely different than the next person.”

It’s been given many names, including “Overparenting,” and it’s become a nationwide trend – not excepting East Carolina University.

 “And I talk to our parents about this during orientation – and again, appreciating and respecting their roles and what they’re wanting for their children and not minimizing that at all…but I think that we need to do a little bit more of allowing them to navigate and to learn how to navigate their life in general.”

But there are other factors to consider. The stakes are high for millennials – higher than they’ve ever been in some cases. A growing, trillion-dollar, student debt crisis looms, joined by nagging labor dilemmas making well-paying jobs scarce, even with a bachelor’s degree.

Dr. Hardy believes the younger generation, as a whole, has risen to the challenge.

“When you think about it, they’re very service oriented. They want change and they’re willing to fight for it, to argue for it, to make change happen. I’m impressed with

The recent uptick may even be a positive sign, Dr. Kisler-van Reede said. It may signal a reduced stigma surrounding psychological therapy.

“I think they’re willing to encourage their friends to get help as well. I think that’s something we hear frequently – that…they will disclose to others that they have had counseling in the past or they know a friend who did and it was helpful. So they are mindful of what’s going on with the people around them and encouraging

Little is known as to why traffic continues increasing at ECU counseling services. The university hopes to find out more as its “resiliency project” – which kicked off in 2015 – continues surveying its student population.

Millennials, as a generation, are under immense pressure – from a lost past, an ambiguous present, and a potentially bleak future. That, by most standards, it’s clear.  

If you want to hear more, go to our website – publicradioeast.org.

I’m Chris Thomas.