Anxiety, autism, anorexia: Mental illnesses University of Memphis students deal with daily

By Tatjana Aylin Schuster and Chip Williams

Anna Floyd always knew she wanted to be a nurse just like her mother, Rhonda.

She wasn’t like many young people, who indecisively battled back-and-forth about what they want to do for the rest of their lives. She knew from a young age that she was meant to be a nurse.

So, when it came time for Floyd to pick a college she decided on Mississippi State University, the school she and her family grew up rooting for in football, basketball and baseball.

Infographic by Tatjana Aylin Schuster

After one year at Mississippi State, Floyd decided to take a semester off and transfer to East Mississippi Community College to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.

Two semesters later, Floyd began to feel the stress and strain of being a nursing student.

“I couldn’t sleep at night,” Floyd said. “I would have to drink myself to sleep every night, otherwise I’d constantly wake up worrying about all of the work I had to do or the exams I had coming up.”

Eventually the pressure began to affect Floyd’s physical health.

“I broke out into hives,” she said. “I saw doctors and dermatologists, and they never were able to diagnose me. They finally went away after I graduated.”

Floyd is not the only college student who had to leap psychological hurdles to receive a degree.

There is a nation-wide spike in the number of students who seek help in dealing with stress, anxiety and depression. In fact, the number of college students visiting university counseling centers has increased at a rate five-times that of enrollment, according to a 2015 study conducted by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.


A spring 2016 study conducted by the American College Health Association revealed that 85.1 percent of college students admitted to feeling overwhelmed by all that they had to do, 36.7 percent felt so depressed that it was difficult to function and nearly one in 10 students seriously considered suicide.

Kevin Baugh, 29, student veteran, developed a post-traumatic stress disorder after his tour in Afghanistan. For more about him and other students’ stories, have a look at the @memphismirror-Account on Instagram (#outofdarkness). Photo by Tatjana Aylin Schuster

“With college students, I think that’s a challenging time and that puts them at an even higher risk of experiencing psychological problems,” said Brook Marcks, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis who specializes in anxiety disorders.

Allee Maxwell, a recent graduate of the University of Memphis, said she struggled with anxiety and depression while getting her undergraduate degree.

“I always felt overwhelmed with the amount of studying I had to do,” Maxwell said. “I never felt like I did enough studying even though I would spend four or five hours studying every day, even on the weekends.”

Maxwell, who plans to apply to the University of Tennessee medical school for the fall 2017 semester, said she was constantly under pressure to make good grades.

Student Lauren Kuykendall, 23, literally felt like she was burnt out like a candle when all of her assignments and homework overwhelmed her. For more about him and other students’ stories, have a look at the @memphismirror-Account on Instagram (#outofdarkness). Photo by Tatjana Aylin Schuster

“It was never enough just to pass a test or even get a B on an exam,” she said. “Medical school is so competitive, and I always told myself that it was never good enough to just do good on a test. So, I put a lot of pressure on myself, and that led to my eating disorder.”

Maxwell developed an eating disorder which consumed her life and put even more pressure on her.

She became obsessed with losing weight or maintaining a certain weight. She said she would run in addition to constantly dieting.

“I reached a point where I was running 12, 13, 14 miles every single day,” Maxwell said. “Whether I was happy or not depended on how my weight was and how my grades were. It was the lowest point in my life.”

She eventually sought outside help and attended weekly counseling sessions in Jackson, Tennessee.

Maxwell is one of the many college students who struggle with eating disorders. One in five college students said that they currently have or previously have struggled with eating disorders, according to a study done by the Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association.

“There are lots of different coping strategies people turn to to help with their psychological pain and suffering,” Marcks said. “Some of those might be positive strategies that are helpful and some might be more along the lines where they’re helpful in the moment, but then they have negative affects like an eating disorder.”

Dallas Smith, a University of Memphis senior who moved six hours away from home to school, said that he used exercise to deal with his anxiety. Smith admitted that he put pressure on himself to exceed in school in hopes of one day becoming a dentist.

“It’s hard to say what’s the right coping strategy because it’s very much an individual thing,” Marcks said. “Exercise is used a lot in our treatment of anxiety and depression, also yoga, meditation and mindfulness.”

Many students struggle to make it through college to graduation while dealing with anxiety and depression or even eating disorders, but for some, it is too much to handle.

Savannah Donley is a junior international business major at the University of Memphis. This is her second semester back in school after taking an entire school year off because she was unable to cope with the daily stress.

Donley had her school paid for through scholarships and grants, but decided to drop out before the completion of the Spring 2015 semester, losing her financial aid after failing her classes that semester.

“I had to take a break because I couldn’t take the stress semester after semester,” Donley said. “Of course I felt bad for losing all of my financial aid, but at the time I didn’t feel like I had another choice.”

Donley is now back in school after serving tables full-time during her time off, and she’s paying for school out-of-pocket.

“I wish I could get my money for school back, but I can’t,” she said. “The time off gave me the break I needed to relieve some stress and remind myself how important a college degree is to being successful.”

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