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Is There a Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses?

Posted by On Thursday, March 12, 2015

At a meeting for the American Philosophical Association, Peter Railton, a distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, spoke about his lifelong battle with depression, highlighting the importance and difficulty of speaking candidly about mental health issues on college campuses.

[T]he thing is… I couldn’t say, ‘Look, I’m dying inside. I need help.’ Because that’s what depression is—it isn’t sadness or moodiness, it is above all a logic that undermines from within, that brings to bear all the mind’s mighty resources in convincing you that you’re worthless, incapable, unloveable, and everyone would be better off without you.

This admission of vulnerability and self-doubt, coming as it did from a highly respected academic, struck a nerve. Social media erupted with heartfelt responses to Railton’s revelation and praise for his courage. Many other faculty members and graduate students felt emboldened to share their own struggles with mental health conditions, inspiring a lengthy comment thread at the philosophy blog Daily Nous. More importantly, Railton’s remarks gave momentum to a conversation that needs to continue on campuses across the country among students, faculty, and administrators.

A Growing Problem

Recent surveys suggest that student mental health is at an all-time low. Depression and anxiety are two of the biggest mental health concerns on college and university campuses. Some commentators are even talking about a mental health crisis on college campuses as the situation seems to have worsened in recent years.

In 2012, the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors found that 70% of Directors felt the number of students with severe psychological problems on their campus had increased in the past year, and 96% reported that the number of students with significant psychological problems was a growing concern for their institution.

First-year students in fall 2014 reported the lowest self-rated emotional health in the history of the Higher Education Research Institute’s annual survey “The American Freshman.”

And in Spring 2014, according to the National College Health Assessment, almost half of first-year students reported they have felt things were hopeless in the last year, and over half have felt overwhelming anxiety.

It’s not clear what has caused this increase in mental health issues on campuses. It may reflect a larger trend in the US. It may also reflect a more positive trend: growing awareness around psychiatric disabilities and our willingness to talk about them.

Some observers have suggested it’s the high pressure environment of higher education. Recently, in the wake of six suicides in just 15 months, the University of Pennsylvania released a report blaming a campus culture that one member of the task force described as “destructive perfectionism.” As the report explained,

[T]he pressures engendered by the perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, co-curricular, and social endeavor can lead to stress and in some cases distress. The often endemic use or misuse of alcohol or other drugs, lack of sleep, improper nutrition and other factors have a detrimental impact on student success and can compound students’ stress.

Regardless of the causes of the rise of mental health issues on campuses, institutions need to respond. Indeed, increases in mental health issues may have already put strain on counseling resources at some schools.

A recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, suggested that growing mental health issues on campus can also lead to access issues. Some students are waiting days or even weeks to meet with a counselor. Long waits not only prevent students from getting help when they need it but can also discourage students from speaking to a counselor at all.

Aaron D. Krasnow, the director of counseling services at Arizona State, explained to the Chronicle: “Not only are they not getting help, but now they’re losing time and they’re losing momentum and all the energy they took in reaching out for help, which is not a small thing. It’s a massive act.”

The problem is particularly acute for survivors of sexual assault.

Fortunately there are many organizations and initiatives specifically aimed at college students that can provide help and ideas to students and administrators alike. These resources include the JED Foundation, Half of Us, and Campus Program, a collaboration between the JED and Clinton Foundations.

Some campuses are even experimenting with online counseling to meet demand. A pilot program at the University of Florida called Therapist Assisted Online has been showing promising results. Not only are these online sessions more convenient, but they take less time than in-person session, allowing counselors to spend more time with patients who need more support. Preliminary evidence even suggests that students treated online may fare better than students participating in face-to-face sessions. In fact, similar virtual sessions are also being used in other settings to help increase access to mental health services for patients who may have difficulty attending in-person therapy.

There are other programs as well, such as Screening for Mental Health, that offer schools easy ways to inform students of and connect them with local resources.

Continuing a Conversation

The importance of mental health to student wellbeing and academic success demands we continue to have meaningful conversations around these issues. At CampusClarity we’re partnering with Screening for Mental Health to provide schools with the opportunity to connect students with free mental health screenings and the resources they need.

As Railton urged, “if enough of us, of all ages and walks of life, parents, children, brothers, co-workers, spouses, relatives, deans and directors, tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, can be open about our passages through mental illness, a shadowy stigma will fade away in the broad light of day.”

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