Mental Health & College

As I wrote yesterday, depression and mental health is a hugely personal issue for me.  I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety in some form or fashion since I was in 8th grade, but didn’t actively seek treatment for it until college, when the adjustment to a brand new environment, combined with my already existing issues, pushed me into therapy.

I was lucky.  I graduated from Muhlenberg College, and Rick at the counseling center saved my life Freshman year.  And yes, I do mean that literally.  He got me through the transition into college, the breakup with my girlfriend from home, and a slew of other challenges.  When it became apparent that talking wasn’t enough, he helped me locate a psychiatrist at home who first prescribed me medication.

The reason I have been thinking about this is because of my real job.  As part of it, I’ve been reading a fascinating, in-depth study on suicide in college students, complete with specific recommendations for how to reduce them.  This, naturally, brought me back to college, and had me thinking about how lucky I was.

But what about those who aren’t so lucky?

Look, college is insanely stressful.  It’s a time period in which many mental health challenge first manifest themselves (75% of all mental illnesses onset by age 24), and that’s why it is so important that college students (well, everyone, obviously) have knowledge about what sort of mental health resources are available to them – and access to them in the first place.

I did a little bit more research into the specific issue of colleges and mental health.  The results are difficult to swallow.  According to this USA Today article, the issue is rapidly becoming an increasing problem on campus.  A survey of college administrators said that mental health is their top concern on campus.  The same article also found:

“…institutional enrollment grew by 5.6% between 2009 and 2015, while the number of students seeking services increased by 29.6%, and the number of attended appointments by 38.4%.”

There’s actually good news in this article:

This new demand for mental health services reflects a number of positive trends — breaking down of stigmas, more diverse student bodies, greater access to college. But it also puts colleges in a difficult position.

Many colleges – like Muhlenberg – have their own counseling centers on campus.  Students can confidentially make appointments and talk about their problems with a trained professional.  And, as these studies illuminate, this is exactly why it is so important that all colleges have some sort of mental health support system.  Three things in particular strike me:

  1. Colleges must have easily accessible mental health resources, be it on-campus counseling centers or the ability to refer a student to a trained professional off campus.
  2. Colleges must be aggressive in letting their students know what resources are available to them.  The greatest counseling center in the world isn’t going to do a lick of good if students don’t know what’s there for them.  This is why legislation like Madison’s Law is so important.  This proposal, recently enacted in New Jersey and named after Madison Holleran (a University of Pennsylvania Freshman who killed herself), requires that:

    An institution of higher education shall have individuals with training and experience in mental health issues who focus on reducing student suicides and attempted suicides available on campus or remotely by telephone or other means for students 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The individuals shall also work with faculty and staff on ways to recognize the warning signs and risk factors associated with student suicide.

    No later than 15 days following the beginning of each semester, an institution of higher education shall transmit to each student via electronic mail the contact information of the individuals required pursuant to subsection a. of this section.

    In Pennsylvania, this legislation has been introduced by my colleague, Rep. Tim Briggs.

  3. We must continue to endeavor to destimagtize mental illness.  The stigma that surrounds mental health continues to keep people away from available treatment.  That’s why anti-stigma campaigns – and putting a personal face to mental illness – is so important.

I’ll certainly have more to say later, but this is obviously an important issue when it comes to mental health.  And one more thing: The more I dive into this area, the more I find just how important it is to not approach mental health as a monolithic block.  We have to approach each subgroup differently (college students, first responders, LGBT, etc) while pushing towards the overall goal of reducing stigma and helping all people find peace.

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