It’s widely known that mental health is a serious problem on campuses, the scale of which is astounding. This issue also extends beyond colleges, as the American Counseling Association demonstrated when it found that 40 million Americans aged 18 and above suffer from an anxiety disorder. The prevalence of this issue makes it important we find effective tools to fix it. One approach is to strengthen and publicize resources available for students dealing with mental health problems, but this is just part of the problem. A more difficult problem is how to ensure that people receive treatment.
An intangible yet serious barrier to people seeking treatment is the perceived stigma facing any individual who chooses to go into counseling. Since so many variables go into one’s determination of whether or not to receive treatment, fear of being stigmatized is a more insidious firewall that straddles both the conscious and unconscious decision making mechanisms. Because of this stigma and misperceptions around the use of counseling, many who would benefit from counseling do not receive it. In fact, perhaps nearly half of the millions of people in this country who have a severe mental illness go untreated. This issue is just as severe for college students, as the American College Health Association found that two-thirds of students struggling with mental health do not seek treatment.
Some projects and organizations aim to increase awareness of the resources available to help those struggling with mental health issues, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Bring Change 2 Mind. This is a great base and shows a growing awareness of the problem. But it’s also important that we not only address mental illness itself, but also how counseling can be used for other issues that, while related, differ significantly from mental illness.
The stigma against counseling and the misperceptions about it are intimately connected issues, with widespread misperceptions about therapy itself leading to an odium on those who participate in it. For example, associating therapy completely with mental illness often prevents people from initiating counseling, incorrectly believing it is only useful for those with a serious mental health problems. In reality, therapy is used for a wide variety of issues that often have nothing to do with mental illness. These can include divorces, serious life changes, sexual assaults and problems with romantic relationships among others. Perhaps the reason mental health problems are so widespread among college students is the prevalence of risk factors such as sexual assault that students face, and the fact that attending a University is in itself a huge life change, which leaves students feeling emotionally vulnerable.
Fortunately, it appears that society is moving away from its stigma on mental illness due to increasing support from public figures like President Barack Obama. Here on Grounds, there are key alterations we can make to the way we address counseling. Organizations like HELPLine as well as Counseling and Psychological Services can work to clear misperceptions around the idea of therapy, which would be a huge help to the students at the University, allowing them to utilize the numerous resources around Grounds made available for those struggling with mental illness. Just providing information about these resources is only half the battle. The other half is making sure that students can use them free of social stigma, and here we have a lot of progress to make.
Alex Mink is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.