Junior Angela Martin shares her experiences with depression in her Bethel University dorm room. Doctors diagnosed Martin with depression and anxiety when she was in eighth grade. Martin lives alone in her one-bedroom dorm with her cat, Louis, who is an emotional support animal.

Cover story: Dark thoughts

Bethel University students share their personal experiences of mental illness in light of a national trend and suicide rates on college campuses.

By Abby Petersen | Royal Report

Bethel University freshman Kelsey Christensen sits inside her Nelson Hall dorm room, picturing weapons and pills in her head while she tried to decide which method would be strong enough to kill her. Letters to her friends and family rest in her desk drawer. The letters say she’s sorry and it isn’t their fault she’s dead.

Christensen’s story isn’t unusual. According to an article written by The New York Times in 2015, the national suicide rate for adolescents aged 15–24 increased from 9.6 deaths per 100,000 in 2007 to 11.1 in 2013. The article also reported that a survey conducted among college counselors revealed that more than half of their clients suffered from severe psychological problems, with anxiety and depression on top of the list. In an online email survey of 103 Bethel students, 92 percent reported knowing someone who struggled with some form of mental illness and 47 percent reported struggling with mental illness themselves. Ninety-four percent listed anxiety or depression among mental illnesses they had encountered.

Doctors first diagnosed Christensen with anxiety and depression when she was a freshman in high school. She started struggling academically and had trouble making friends. Lonely nights led to dark thoughts — like thinking she didn’t want to be alive anymore. Leaving home for college four years later felt good, but within a few months of being at Bethel she realized her depression and anxiety had come with her. She went to her RA with her concerns and was offered grace and forgiveness. Christensen went away thinking she didn’t deserve grace. It made things worse. Days later, she sat in her room preparing to kill herself. Christensen lived because her roommate stopped her, but she also credits her life to the grace of God.

“I think people don’t understand that it’s not something you can just get over.” — Kelsey Christensen, senior

“You get to a point where you decide that it’s not that you don’t want to be alive anymore — it’s that you don’t want to be alive and dealing with these things anymore,” Christensen said.

Junior Angela Martin struggles with physical and mental illnesses daily. Martin transferred to Bethel this year.

Now a senior at Bethel, Christensen continues to struggle with anxiety and depression. She believes there is a stigma about mental illness and remembers conflicts she has had with professors and friends who did not understand that her approach to school was different than that of a “traditional student” because of her mental illness.

“I think people don’t understand that it’s not something you can just get over,” she said.

Personal struggles with anxiety and depression inspired another student, who preferred to remain anonymous, to become a psychology major. Her struggle caused her to hospitalize herself for suicide watch just before entering college. Like Christensen, this student credits her improvement to a good support system and the choice to share her struggle with depression with others, something she believes carries a stigma in Christian communities.

When sophomore Luke Lavelle found he couldn’t handle depression on his own anymore, he went to Bethel’s Health Services, which offer free counseling . According to Director of Counseling Resources Miriam Hill, the most common issues students come to counseling services with are stress and anxiety, although many students also come in with other issues, such as conflict resolution. This academic year, 267 individual undergraduate, graduate and seminary students sought the help of Bethel’s counseling services, culminating in 1,967 counseling sessions total.

Respondents to an online survey sent via email to Bethel students reported that counseling and medication were the most helpful forms of dealing with mental illnesses, either from personal experience or from others’ experiences.

Survey results indicated that 33 percent out of 101 respondents believed Bethel had adequate services for those struggling with mental illness; 28 percent believed that Bethel did not and 37 percent didn’t know.

Sophomore Levi Bauer believes that Bethel does an excellent job of accommodating both mental and physical illnesses. Bauer and his brother are the only two living siblings in the world with tubular myopathy, a rare muscle disease. Bauer believes he wouldn’t be the person he is today without the mental and physical illness services he received in high school and at Bethel.

Now preparing to graduate, Christensen sees a counselor off-campus and says her biggest breakthrough in her struggle with mental illness was the choice to share that struggle with her friends.

“Even though it didn’t fix anything, having someone else on my side made a difference,” she said.

Christensen said she has had to fight for her right to be a student because of her mental illness, but it’s been worth it and she wants other students who are dealing with mental illnesses to know that does not change their ability to be a student.

“Keep trying,” Christensen says. “Keep trying to move forward and trying to be real with people. The more you’re real with people the more hope and freedom comes out of that. You can’t find freedom in darkness. Things have to come to light.”

–Additional reporting by Conrad Engstrom, Jason Stormer and Hannah VonGrey.