Winthrop University student Colleen Vaughn had a mental breakdown and left school with just three weeks remaining in her sophomore year.
“I was a train wreck,” she said.
Vaughn, 24, had been active throughout high school, participating in varsity cheerleading and gymnastics.
She graduated a year early from Hilton Head Island High School in 2012. She entered Winthrop as a double major in French and graphic design. She also was active in multiple clubs and worked a part-time job.
“I had no free time,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn started to go days without sleep, trying to maintain her busy schedule and keep her grades up. She is one of four children adopted from China. She said her parents value education and both hold post-graduate degrees.
“I’ve always had that pressure to do really well in school,” Vaughn said. “I have to work really hard to do well in school.”
Vaughn said she started having panic attacks and couldn't get out of bed. She left school in the spring of 2015.
Part of Vaughn’s problem was a tendency to not talk about the stress. She said her parents’ generation, and modern culture, don't openly address mental health.
“You have society telling you ‘oh just push it off to the side, you’ll be fine’ or ‘get over it snowflake,’” Vaughn said. “When you ignore things they continue to fester until they blow up in your face and unfortunately that happened to me.”
After some time off to rest and focus on self care, Vaughn returned to school in the spring of 2016 as a psychology major and now is a senior. Vaughn said she now addresses her struggles with anxiety, talks with her parents about mental health and works to not overload herself.
“I take time to love myself,” she said.
Educators are seeing an increase in students with mental health problems.
According to a 2017 youth risk behavior survey from the South Carolina Department of Education, 17 percent of high school students reported that they had made a plan to kill themselves, and 15 percent of those have attempted suicide. In the same survey, students indicated bullying, fighting and feelings of sadness and hopelessness were some of the problems they face.
Clover High School student Malaki Prescott was 15 years old when he took his own life on Jan. 29. Malaki had battled depression and mental illness for years, said Lynn Jones, his mother.
“You see the stress that many of these students are feeling and it’s coming out in their mental health needs,” said Melissa Reeves, a nationally certified school psychologist who teaches at Winthrop. “It’s challenges and stresses of life and feeling the pressure to not only academically do well but to be accepted by your peers. You’re always being compared to others on social media that it looks like everybody else is doing better.”
South Pointe High School junior Faith Anderson, 17, said it wasn’t until she got to high school that she started to see students struggling with peer pressure, drug and alcohol use, anxiety, depression and other challenges.
“I’ve seen mental health in its worst state once I got to high school,” Anderson said. “It was a shock to see my friends struggling and having to deal with issues I wasn’t used to seeing.”
Vaughn said students tend to spread themselves too thin trying to make it in a competitive society. She said with the cost of living and tuition rising, students are now graduating with more debt and they face more challenges to success.
Anderson said she sees friends who have to work an outside job to help their families while balancing their course load.
“I honestly can’t imagine what they go through,” she said.
Anderson said she had to learn to take time for herself.
At South Pointe, Anderson is the student council junior class president and serves as vice president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and a producer on the school’s student news site SPiN Wired. Anderson also is in the International Baccalaureate program.
“It’s a trend with high schoolers that we put ourselves on the back burner and we’re so worried about our future and taking care of other people,” she said. “We run ourselves until we can’t bear it anymore and we keep our feelings inside.”
Vaughn said school shootings and movements such as #MeToo, of which she is a part of, has sparked a more open conversation.
“I was born in the generation where we are the first group of people to really talk about mental health,” she said. “I am hoping to see moving forward that people become even more accepting of things.”
Anderson said students need to focus on their mental health.
“Realize that when you’re at your wits end, that’s the best time to step away,” she said. “Our future is important, but we won’t be able to experience our future if we’re struggling.”