A community effort

House Bill 206 must be supplemented with additional University initiatives to deal with mental health issues

A bill passed by the Virginia House of Delegates last month concerning college students’ mental health is on tomorrow’s docket for the Senate Education subcommittee. The bill, written by University students, would require all students to complete an online module and assessment on mental health, similar to the module all first-years must complete on alcohol. The bill would also require all Virginia universities to have a web page devoted to mental health resources.

Though the bill is a well-intentioned effort to make students more aware of the resources available to them with regards to mental health, more needs to be done in order to completely address the problems surrounding mental health in a university community. We can put the resources there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be sought out. We can require students to complete a module, but many will breeze through it with the only objective of passing and moving on. All students have to complete the alcohol module, but binge drinking is still a common practice.

HB 206 is an innovative student initiative that makes a necessary attempt to address a lack of knowledge about mental health conditions and treatments. But we must be careful not to put all our eggs in a legislative basket. A bill cannot address all of the nuances surrounding the stigma of mental health problems, and each university’s individual capacity to treat certain kinds of disorders.

A complete and effective renovation of our student mental health treatment at the University will require two steps: a thorough evaluation of the University’s capabilities in treating various mental health conditions, and a more personal education effort among students in order to remove the stigma from mental health conditions.

Mental health disorders range anywhere from common depression and anxiety to eating disorders, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Their causes and treatments vary widely, and individual mental health professionals have different specialties just like physical health professionals. Universities ought to critically assess their abilities in dealing with a whole spectrum of mental health issues and develop a plan to improve any weaknesses.

In addition to assuring all the proper resources are there, we must create a community in which seeking out those resources does not come with judgment or embarrassment. This is a change that cannot occur through any single policy — it must be executed by the students themselves. As Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, correctly pointed out, “Mental illness often manifests itself during the college years.” In a university community, students are more likely to confide in each other, or to recognize that their peers are struggling, than they are to seek professional help initially.

Resident Advisors already serve as a resource for students with regards to mental health issues. The training they receive can be expanded to all students, in order to create a more accepting and supportive environment for those students who struggle with mental health.

Students will have to take much of the initiative in this change. But it is a challenge we can meet. HB 206 is a student-authored piece of legislation. We can work together to make our personal mindsets match up with the intentions of such a law, universally supported.

Published February 26, 2014 in Opinion

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