Words by Taylor Robinson | Illustrations by Sarah Riedlinger 

Living on-campus brings freedom, independence and new experiences. For some college students, living in a new space with new found freedoms and living closely with a roommate affects their mental health. 

Kent State requires all students to live in a residence hall for at least two years unless they can get an exemption. Some of those students say their experiences were irritating, unwelcoming and affecting their mental health.

Sitting in her bed one night, sobbing, senior business management major Lauren Gump promised herself she was going to die before 2018 ended. 

Gump recalls her mental health first deteriorating the fall semester of her sophomore year as she was living with her best friend in Olson Hall, one of Kent State’s 25 on-campus residence halls. The two of them were close, but Gump says something just happened. The two started fighting all the time and Gump stopped feeling like herself.

Kent State requires all unmarried students enrolled in nine or more credit hours to live in the university residence halls, excluding summer sessions, until the student has junior academic standing. This is unless they have an exemption from the department of residence services, according to the university policy regarding student housing.

“As an institution, we strongly believe that students benefit academically and socially by living on campus for two years,” says Kevin Mowers, director of residence life, via an email. “This past fall, students who lived on campus averaged a grade-point-average of 2.98 while those living off averaged a 2.83. The persistence rate of housing is at 91.8 percent. This means that nine out of 10 students will return to campus after their first semester.”

Irritating, difficult and lonely is how Mia Davis, freshman exploratory major who’s name has been changed, describes her first experience living on campus last semester.

Davis met her first roommate, a resident assistant (RA), on Facebook, a common strategy freshmen use to look for a roommate. A few weeks into the semester, this roommate moved out and there was a two-to-three-week period where Davis was living alone in her room. Being new to campus and not having friends yet, Davis felt lonely.

Eventually, a new RA was assigned to the room. Davis says she emailed her new roommate once or twice to see if she wanted to get coffee or talk and set their expectations for each other as roommates. Davis had a feeling things wouldn’t go well when her roommate didn’t respond to her efforts to reach out.

Davis’ new roommate situation was difficult, from her roommate keeping the TV on at night, blasting music after going out and having friends over unannounced. She couldn’t even remember the major of the girl who slept in a bed next to her.

These are all problems students encounter when they first move into dorms.   

Davis describes the experience living with her former roommate as “the most unwelcoming and uninviting experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

“It got to the point where I would try to stay in the library or do something with a club so late at night so I didn’t have to be in the room,” Davis says. “There were some nights she would go out and those were the nights I would stay in.”

Nina Schubert, a sophomore early childhood education major and founder of The Nightingale Project, believes students seem to struggle with mental health and illnesses because of the independence they receive when they start college. Finally having that sense of independence can sometimes be overwhelming for students.   

“The Nightingale Project is working to de-stigmatize mental illness and help give back” is the organization’s mission statement. Founded by Schubert in October 2017, the organization focuses on mental health advocacy and creating a welcoming community on Kent State’s campus. Last year, the Nightingale Project raised $700 to make more than 40 blankets for adolescents in psychiatric units. This year, the organization is hosting an event on April 22 in the student center ballroom, Be-YOU-tiful, promoting self-love and body positivity.

Schubert describes her own on-campus living experience as both good and bad. 

When I had those rough nights, even if I didn’t get along with my roommate necessarily, there was at least somebody else in the room with me so I couldn’t do addictive behaviors and do bad behaviors,” Schubert says. “I couldn’t self-harm with someone else in the room.”

While she appreciated having another body in her space during those rough days for small conversation and to feel safe, Schubert describes herself as an independent person and feels she works better alone.

“My bedroom is my go-to safe place. I make it as comfortable as possible so if I have a stressful day I can go back, relax and take time for myself,” Schubert says. “With a dorm on campus, you’re sharing a very small, confined space with someone, especially if you don’t get along with that person, that can cause stress and anxiety or make some of those symptoms you may already have worse.”

There is a shift in an environment that can lead to depression because there is a change of independence, freedom and lack of accountability in a college setting, Schubert says.

A study by Cristina Rodriguez at Texas State University says adjusting to the newness of college life can have negative effects on students trying to navigate their new environment, new friends and new classes. Stress accumulates from the adjustment and it can be difficult to cope with the new stressors. College students are easily overwhelmed by stress and many students may not deal with daily stressors in a healthy way, causing their mental health to decline.  

Mental illness occurs more in young adults between the ages 18 and 24 than any other age group, which is why mental illness may be an issue on college campuses, according to the study done by Rodriguez. In 2012, 31.6 percent of students were so depressed that it was difficult to function.

Schubert explains when she was living on campus, even basic hygiene routines became difficult. Some residence halls on campus have private bathrooms or suite-style private bathrooms, while others are “pod-style” community bathrooms that require students to leave their room, go down the hall to a bathroom and use their key card to swipe into the bathroom.

“On those very depressed days, I wouldn’t want to go down the hallway, swipe in, swipe out. My personal hygiene took a hit while living in a dorm and worrying about shower space and cleanliness, which can cause stress and anxiety,” Schubert says.

 Unable to get out of bed, not having an appetite and having never felt so down, Gump decided to go to the on-campus health center to see a therapist.

“One day, I couldn’t’ stop crying during a session and decided to go on medication to help,” Gump says.  

Schubert explains that students should take advantage of the services on campus like the Counseling Center in White Hall, which serves as a training clinic for graduate students in the Counselor Education and Supervision program. The services in White Hall are free to students, which is a good resource if students worry about their parents finding out or finances.

“We have a partnership with DeWeese Health Center in which programs and activities are available for our students who are struggling with mental health concerns,” Mowers says. “In addition, we offer events throughout the year in which stress relief or reduction is a major part of the activity. We want our students to find balance in their involvement so that they can find a good resolution to some of their mental health concerns.” 

Mowers says all student staff and professional staff are trained in getting students connected on campus to the resources to help with their specific needs.

“Our student staff members are trained in spotting mental health concerns and getting those students connected to resources,” Mowers says. “We put our staff through extensive training that covers a variety of topics that impact mental health, interpersonal conflicts, personal well-being. We will often partner with campus resource, local agencies and national organizations to provide training for our staff.” 

According to a 2011 report made by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), 27 percent of students struggle with depression and 11 percent struggle with anxiety while in college. Of all the students who struggle with mental health and illnesses, only 55 percent of students accessed mental health services and support systems on campus.

Gump went through Residence Services and was able to get out of her housing contract for the spring semester her sophomore year. She began commuting from her mother’s home in Warren, and she hasn’t talked to her former friend and roommate since.

“Being with family made a huge difference, talking to someone and talking about it helps,” Gump says. “I go to therapy in the health center a couple times a month. I always talk to my mom and dad when I’m feeling really sad or having a rough day. They know what to say to bring my spirits up.”

Gump is set to graduate in December 2019, and while she keeps herself busy with school and work, she says she still experiences those dark times and days. She now lives in a house with two roommates and feels her current living situation has made her mental health deteriorate once again. Feeling like things aren’t getting any better, she is in the process of moving into an apartment and has signed a lease to live alone.

Davis came to the conclusion by Thanksgiving break her living situation wasn’t getting any better. After she went to an RA on a different floor for help, she waited until the end of the semester and eventually moved out of the room without telling her roommate.

Now, Davis lives in a single room with one suitemate she has talked to a few times, briefly. She says she loves being able to go back to her room after a bad day and feels free not having to deal with a difficult living situation. 

“Honestly, when I was moving all my stuff out, I was so happy,” Davis says. “It felt like I was breaking out of a shell. I felt like I could finally enjoy college. It really affected my mental health. I shouldn’t be crying in my room of all things. I have enough to deal with. There were some nights where she would go out and I would lay in bed and cry and think, I need to apply for another room, I can’t do this anymore.” 

Mowers advises students to pull their RA aside and talk to them about what is going on or go to the residence hall director’s office. Every floor in every building on campus has multiple staff members there to help students.

“Don’t bottle it up,” Gump says. “Talk to someone, whether it is a friend, therapist. Just talk to someone.”

Schubert’s advice to anyone struggling is to just be honest about it. It can be scary, but taking those first steps and talking with others will help. 

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I think that’s the biggest issue,” Davis says. “If you have a bad feeling, it’s probably right. You know what you’re going to accept and what you’re not going to accept. If you’re already not liking the vibe, it probably is not going to change.”