Anxiety, depression and stress are reality for Jordon Deutmeyer, a 23-year-old University of Northern Iowa student who has dropped out of two schools, attempted suicide, and failed a multitude of classes.
“I just remember trying really hard in all of my classes,” Deutmeyer said. “I never skipped, I never did anything, I tried really hard. I would just get C’s back or fail.
“And the more times I did that, the more it was pounding into me that I was an inferior student and I don’t belong here.”
He got a lesson that any college students dealing with depression learn – that while earning a bachelor’s degree in college requires anyone to overcome obstacles, students with depression can find themselves overcoming even darker challenges.
They include sadness, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, physical problems, sleeping problems and suicidal thoughts, according to the National Institute of Mental Health website.
The challenges become bigger when universities lack resources and outreach programs, and faculty and staff are unaware of students’ struggles. The result for students dealing with depression is difficulty performing at their best, maintaining grades or even staying in school.
According to the most recent annual data from the National College Health Assessment, 930 students at the University of Iowa, 561 students at the University of Northern Iowa and 878 students Iowa State University reported that factors like anxiety, depression and stress impeded their academic performance in the past year. The UI and UNI data are from 2013, while ISU’s is from 2012.
THE FACES OF DEPRESSION
It was a chillier than normal October day at ISU when Deutmeyer thought he was ready to die. After dropping out of Kirkwood Community College because of depression, attention deficit disorder and a personality disorder, Deutmeyer was trying to pursue a degree in psychology at ISU in 2010. But he had failing grades and screaming suicidal thoughts, and school was becoming increasingly difficult to handle.
“I would see all these kids around me taking 18 credits and getting an A average, and here I was taking 14, and I was struggling the whole time,” Deutmeyer said. “That made me feel worthless, constantly worthless, constantly like I want to do the schooling so bad, but I’m watching everyone else do easily what I struggle with.”
As the struggle on concentrating and focusing in class increased over the fall semester, so did Deutmeyer’s suicidal thoughts, he said. At the beginning of the semester he had wanted to succeed in school; by the middle, he said, he just wanted to succeed in killing himself.
Oct. 12, 2010, was the day. He went to ISU Student Counseling Services saying he didn’t feel well and met with a counselor.
“I felt like he gave me this copy-and-paste answer of, ‘Oh if you feel like you’re going to kill yourself, then here is a number to call.’ I was like, this doesn’t even matter any more. I felt like not only did I give up on them, but they gave up on me,” Deutmeyer said.
After the counseling visit, he returned to his residence hall, stood outside, called his mother to say one last goodbye and tried to overdose on anti-depressants. Doctors at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames were able to save him and kept him under watch for two weeks while he recovered. He returned to ISU the day after he left the hospital and returned to class.
Class was difficult however, as he tried to make up for lost ground. Too embarrassed to tell his professors he was at the hospital for a suicide attempt, he struggled more with his academics and received C’s, D’s and F’s in his classes.
And even though he knew he could have asked for leniency, he didn’t feel like there was anything his professors could do.
Eventually, Deutmeyer dropped out of ISU, and returned home to live with his parents in Dubuque in spring 2011.
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At first, Samantha Torres, 20, was excited to start school and pursue a degree in English at UNI in 2011. Originally from San Antonio, Torres was awarded UNI scholarships and grants that allowed her to move north and attend the university. Diagnosed with depression at 15, things were looking positive.
“When I first got here, I was very welcomed. I felt really comfortable,” Torres said. “Like some of my best memories was when I got here and it was new and exciting.”
After adjusting to life in Iowa, Torres was earning A’s and B’s in most of her classes at the beginning of her second semester. She met new friends, enjoyed going out and tried different extracurricular activities. However, after entering into a bad relationship with a man she met in one of her English classes, her depression triggered and slowly consumed her.
Once going to class eagerly every day, she found herself missing days at a time.
“You just want to be alone all the time and you feel like nobody will understand you. So being alone all the time leads to really bad thoughts to the point where in late October, I was making plans to kill myself,” Torres said.
One October evening she made specific plans but called the UNI counseling center. A staff member there drove her to Allen Hospital in Waterloo for observation. It was Homecoming weekend at UNI.
She decided to continue her semester and let her professors know about her hospitalization. “When I first got released from the hospital, all my professors were like, ‘you were in the hospital let me know how to help you,’” Torres said.
However, Torres said the accommodations didn’t last long. Some of her professors were willing to give extensions on assignments, but she said a few did not.
‘“My professors didn’t really want to give me sympathy long term, though, because it’s like, ‘What’s the deal? We’ve given you extensions, we’ve tried to work for you.’ It was like, I was still having these problems going on, but it was really hard to make someone understand who didn’t deal with it before.”
Torres’ A’s and B’s quickly were dropping, and even after she started attending counseling and broke up with her boyfriend, achieving passing grades was difficult. By fall 2013, Torres had to drop out because her grade point average was under a 2.0 — a “C” on a 4-point scale — which caused her to lose her scholarships and grants that allowed her to attend school in the first place.
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Depression wasn’t a word junior vocal music major Kate Heetland, 21, thought of often. She knew she consistently felt pessimistic, fatigued and stressed since high school, but it wasn’t until October 2012, when a visit to the UNI counseling center and later diagnosis of depression, that she realized she had a mental disorder.
“My major, I obviously do singing and I used to love that, but I would go into a practice room and think ‘I don’t want to sing today.’ And that would go on for a whole week or so,” Heetland said.
As Heetland’s depression worsened and her suicidal thoughts heightened in spring 2013, the A student found herself slipping down to B’s and C’s. “I knew that it was bad, but I didn’t really care up to that point,” Heetland said. “It got to the point where I was like, I’ll just pass every class instead of trying to do well.”
At one point, she let her professors know she was dealing with depression. One professor provided accommodations for Heetland for three months but that changed, she said. “When I told her, by the way, I honestly can’t finish this class, I need to take an incomplete, she was like, ‘Why don’t you just do it?’ and she treated it like I wasn’t sick,’” Heetland said.
Joe Gorton, UNI criminology professor and president of the university’s faculty union, said the majority of faculty overwhelmingly does not intend to hurt or be unkind to students. But determining when a student has depression or may be suicidal is difficult, he said.
“I’m in the role of professor. I’m not Mister Rogers. So I can see how a student might be tentative about speaking with me. That’s displaying a vulnerability,” Gorton said.
GETTING HELP, OVERCOMING EMBARRASSMENT
Students diagnosed with depression can receive reasonable academic accommodations through UNI’s disability services, said Ashley Brickley, coordinator for students with disabilities.
Determined case by case, the general accommodations include instructor notes, extended time on exams, extended absences or lighter class loads, Brickley said. This spring 2013 semester, 20 percent of the 300 students served by UNI disability services are diagnosed with a mental disorder, Brickley said.
However, spreading word that students with depression may receive support from disability services is a challenge. Even when the message is delivered, students who need assistance often do not seek it. “We aren’t able to advocate for students unless they tell us what is going on,” Brickley said.
Torres read about disability services’ efforts to help students with accommodations while she was in college but chose not to seek help.
“It was just my own embarrassment and guilt. I felt like I wouldn’t be seen as needing those services,” Torres said. “The word disability, I don’t think about the word depression. I was so afraid to go in and have them tell me, ‘Are you serious?’ So I guess that kept me out of there.”
Heetland said her counselor offered to write her professors a note requiring they provide her academic accommodations. Heetland rejected the note, saying her pride got in the way.
Deutmeyer’s counselor while he was at ISU offered to write a note that allowed him to be a full-time student with only nine hours of class credits for a semester. He, too, rejected the help.
“Depression is a full-time job and I couldn’t go to my teacher and say, ‘Hey, I didn’t get my homework done because I was lying in bed too depressed to go to class and crying,’” Deutmeyer said.
All of this leaves faculty and staff with the difficult task of assisting students who are hiding their struggles. Gorton said, “You make it, and muscle it, and it becomes invisible to the rest of us.”
Compounding matters, confidential rules keep UNI Student Disability Services from disclosing why a student needs special class accommodations. Moreover, “just because someone needs a special accommodation doesn’t mean they need a kinder and gentler support,” Gorton said. “It’s hard to tell.”
EDUCATING THE FACULTY
Both the UNI Counseling Center and Student Disability Services provide educational outreach about student depression to professors and faculty.
Professionals from the Counseling Center visit departmental meetings throughout the year to educate professors about students with depression and how they can help students with disabilities. Other initiatives include workshop programs and presentations in conjunction with departments like UNI Public Safety and the Dean of Students Office.
Disability Services professionals also talk to professors on behalf of students with mental disorders, to see if accommodations are available for students.
Disability Services’ Brickley and David Towle, director of the UNI Counseling Center, said most faculty members they’ve interacted with want to help students with depression succeed in classes.
Gorton said he hasn’t heard of training at UNI that assists faculty members with supporting students who are suicidal or may have depression. However, two years ago, after one of Gorton’s students took his own life, Gorton started thinking about students with serious mental problems and how people at universities unintentionally “may be making things worse.”
Now, Gorton, Towle and others at UNI hope to provide support for students with depression by developing two approaches to support students with depression. One, a gatekeeper model, would encourage members of the UNI community to identify and assist potentially suicidal students. The other, a public health model, would increase visibility and provide a community for students.
They are “trying to create a place where everyone, those students on the margins, can be together and draw support from one another and a sense of belonging to one another,” Gorton said. He was unsure when the program would start because he wants to create something enduring.
“We’re going to try and find an answer to that on campus,” Gorton said. “From faculty, staff, President (William) Ruud, all the way down. What we can all do to help those students is, one, feel more comfortable to be a part of the community and, two, reach out.”
STRESSES FACING COUNSELING CENTERS
Handling and even recovering from depression can occur more easily through therapy, according to the American Psychological Association. However, staff shortages at university and college counseling centers across the nation can create difficulties for students who want to be seen promptly or frequently by a counselor, according to a 2012 study by the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium. IowaWatch is a participant in that consortium.
In August, before class was in session, UNI senior Sarah Wood, 20, said she called the UNI Counseling Center to schedule an appointment to help her handle her depression. Diagnosed with depression during her freshman year at UNI, she said she was unaware that Student Disability Services helped with class accommodations.
After meeting with a counselor to receive an initial assessment, Wood said it took nearly a month for the Counseling Center to get her regularly scheduled. “That upset me because I just don’t understand why they’re so busy at that time,” Wood said.
UNI alumna Andrea Alert, 28, said she wanted to see her counselor every week in 2012 while she dealt with depression. However, she was asked if she would be willing to only see her counselor every other week and give some of her appointment slots to another person who also needed it. She reluctantly agreed.
Towle said he has seen an increase in students using services at the center during the 16 years he’s worked at UNI. He contributes the increase to less stigma surrounding mental disorders.
The International Association of Counseling Services recommends that university counseling centers house one counselor for every 1,000 students. Towle said UNI has one for every 1,500. The UNI Counseling Center employs eight full-time counselors.
“I wouldn’t say I’m happy with the number of staff members because I do think there are students out there we could reach, but obtaining the funding to hire more staff is challenging in this economic environment,” Towle said.
“I do think that there’s a general shortage of mental health practitioners in Iowa and probably the country, that there aren’t enough people to provide services to all the people who could benefit.”
The UNI center is funded by a mandatory health fee paid by each UNI student and the university’s general education fund, which is a combination of tuition and state funds. An enrollment drop at UNI in 2012 meant less tuition revenue, leaving the center with a main priority of maintaining the current staff, Towle said.
The center received $624,126 in fiscal 2012, which ended June 30, 2012. In fiscal 2013 it received $628,740 and in fiscal 2014, the center is to receive $638,820, Towle said. However, while funding is increasing, Towle said the money only maintains existing services.
Towle said he plans to request more funding from the university for additional staffing, although he’s unsure if his request will be granted. Towle said the counseling center has not hired a full-time counselor for five years.
“If we had more staff, we could do more outreach and education because there’s people who don’t know about our services,” Towle said. “And if we could do more to educate people about the benefits of psychotherapy, I think even more students would be trying to use our services.”
Towle said seeing a counselor is easier in the beginning of the semester, instead of the middle or the end of the semester. Additionally, counselors at the center try to see people who have suicidal ideations more quickly, which means a longer wait for students who counselors believe can handle the wait time.
He said the UNI Counseling Center is about average in terms of the amount of funding, size of staff and number students for which it provides services. He based that on an Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors annual survey, Towle wrote in a later email.
HOPE FOR CHANGE IN THE EDUCATION SYSTEM
After dropping out of college, Torres moved to Cedar Rapids with her fiancé and has a baby on the way. Life is exciting and manageable. However, she would like nothing more than to return to school and finish her degree, she said. She was allowed to walk the graduation stage in spring 2013 but Torres said she still needs to complete around 40 hours to graduate.
Though she doesn’t believe there’s a chance she’ll get her scholarships or grants back, she plans to apply for in-state tuition. She said she believes more can be done for students like her, though she’s not sure what needs to change.
“I know my story. I know what would make me succeed. But I also feel like it’s probably asking a lot of the school to kind of bend rules and give me certain permissions that other students might not get,” Torres said.
Heetland spent the fall 2013 semester abroad in Germany and called it an opportunity to try leaving her depression behind for a fresh start. However, she said, it stayed with her, and intensified overseas. She said she hopes for a future where she doesn’t have to take medication for depression and she can feel content, but also that universities have open conversations about depression.
“There is quite a large amount of people, especially women who are depressed,” Heetland said. “Some of them are sitting in their rooms, feeling that way, and not realizing there’s a community or things like that, that they actually have people going through the same thing.”
Deutmeyer decided to take one more leap into higher education and started attending UNI in August 2011. While he still struggles with his academics, Deutmeyer said he’s found a support system of friends, proper medication and counseling. He’s added an art major, and expects to be in school for another year and a half.
Though he’s struggled and dropped out in the past, Deutmeyer said he is looking forward to what lies ahead.
“My dreams and my hoping is the only thing that got me here, and I think it’s the only thing that will get me going in the future,” he said. “I do it because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t know what else I would do.”Versions of this story were published by The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls) and The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA).