As more and more students apply each year to increasingly competitive colleges, student mental health has become a heavily debated topic within the world of higher education. According to the American Psychological Association, 95 percent of college counseling center directors reported the number of students with serious psychological problems was a growing concern at their health centers, and 70 percent of directors believe the number of students with severe psychological problems on their campus has increased in the past year. While most universities do provide basic mental health resources like counseling, many are currently severely understaffed and have tenuous funding. Simultaneously, recent cases of college administrations silencing mental health cases in fear of negative press represent a disquieting new trend of universities shirking responsibility when it comes to mental health. Given their increased rigor and selectivity, it is the duty of collegiate institutions not only to invest in basic student mental health services, but also to proactively educate the student body on how to help peers with mental illness.
The American College Health Association reports that over the past year, nearly one in three college students has reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” According to Newsweek, 39 percent of students visiting counseling centers in 2012 reported “severe” psychological issues, up from only 16 percent in 2000. Two hours away at the College of William and Mary, five students have committed suicide in the past year alone.
Clearly, student health is an issue colleges need to start addressing head on. Yet some administrations have attempted to skirt the issue altogether by actively kicking out students who show signs of mental illness under the guise of “extended medical leave.” One personal account published in the Yale Daily News by a student with mental health issues recounts her removal from her university. After she admitted to counselors to committing self harm, Yale mandated she take medical leave for her “safety,” when it was clear leaving school would in fact make her situation worse. Numerous other reports tell similar stories — one where anxious universities try to rid themselves of potential problem students by pushing students out the system via mandatory medical leave. Rather than helping students get better, such extended medical leaves often cut students from support resources within their universities and make it difficult for students to continue their education even after they have gotten better. In the worst cases, forced medical leaves have even led to suicide.
Universities are quick to give medical leave for a multitude of reasons: to avoid the negative press of being seen as a “depressed school,” to distance themselves from liability issues and to overcorrect on the phenomenon of mass school shootings. While the former and latter reasons may be understandable from an institutional perspective, it is a university's job to take basic liability of student health issues, especially ones caused by academic reasons. Just as universities provide housing, food, and physical health services, they must also provide adequate mental health services, not just understaffed barebones counselling programs. At William and Mary, many have pointed to the unqualified statuses of the majority of counseling staff and the college’s consistent failure to implement promises of better mental health services. The first priority, then, is for colleges to fix core mental health resources before providing additional programs.
After ensuring they have enough qualified counselling staff to meet the demands of students, mental health clinics should look toward implementing preemptive measures and better campus outreach. Recently, some state counties have been providing mental health first aid classes that educate regular citizens on mental health issues. At universities, the implementation of such classes could have enormously positive outcomes. Students trained in how to deal with mental health issues could potentially catch warning signs in friends before their illnesses worsen. Educating students on the correct way to help their friends cope with anxiety and stress could be a powerful, preemptive way to reduce mental health problems at colleges and help quickly connect more students with college counseling services. Additionally, universities could help students to find more proactive ways of coping with stress. Attempts by some state schools to encourage meditation, exercise and yoga are weak ways to combat stress and anxiety on their own, but could be of tremendous help when combined with quality counselling services, and would come at little fiscal cost.
While we at the University are fortunate to have a fairly strong mental health program, few preemptive actions are being taken here to combat student anxiety. With its newly expanded counseling staff, Counseling and Psychological Services should look into providing mental health seminars for the general student body and promote active ways for students to cope individually.
Hasan Khan is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.