When thinking of the college experience, maybe countless papers, drunken debauchery, kooky professors, hook-ups, or sporting events come to mind, but for approximately 50% of college students, both undergraduate and graduate), mental health disorders are a part of the college experience as well (Hunt and Eisenberg 4). This particularly prevalent problem is frequently lost in the noise to the aforementioned aspects of college, perpetuating the relatively nonchalant attitude universities have shown towards the mental health of their students. Various organizations spend millions of dollars on campaigns to educate college students about drinking responsibly and practicing safe sex, but mental health problems simply do not receive the same attention. This flippancy creates three huge issues: one, students are unaware that they even have a mental disorder, two, the students that are aware either cannot get access to the proper treatment at their school, or three, they refuse to seek treatment because of the stigmas attached to mental illness and treatment (Hunt and Eisenberg 6). Something needs to be done to change how universities handle mental health on their campuses, because year after year, the number of college students suffering from mental illness increases (Gallagher 5). If schools do not better their efforts to educate college students about mental health problems and to improve means of treatment on campus, college students will continue to endure the negative effects of mental illness, leading to serious complications during their college years and even further development of serious of mental disorders in their future.
Upon entering my freshman year of college, I was required to take two online courses about drinking responsibly and one online course about safe sexual conduct, but no online courses about maintaining a healthy state of mind. This experience alone reveals the reality that mental wellness is second string compared to sex and alcohol concerns on college campuses. The University of Southern California is not the only university that has such requirements, and per Section 22 of the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1989, all “institutions of higher education” are required to have “adopted and implemented” some kind of drug and alcohol awareness program (ECFR). To be clear, universities absolutely should be required by law to educate students on drugs and alcohol, and the decision to enact this mandate is extremely reasonable and responsible. That being said, what is unacceptable is the absence of a law requiring mental health education, considering there are more suicides among college students (6.18 per 100,000 students) than alcohol-related deaths (4.86 per 100,000 students) (Turner and Keller). In response to these statistics, those who feel alcohol is the most important priority in regards to student health and wish to eradicate alcohol from campuses altogether would say that deaths only show a portion of the problems alcohol causes for college students, and that alcohol affects students in many other ways besides death. Mental disorders are synonymous in this sense, as suicide is just one of the countless ways that college students are impacted by mental illness.
Suicide is not the only way mental health disorders manifest themselves in college students; the damaging effects apart from suicide, though not as outwardly evident, are just as serious. In the National College Health Assessment conducted by the American College Health Association (ACHA-NCHA) more than one in three undergrads reported “feeling so depressed it was difficult to function” within the past 12 months (Hunt and Eisenberg 4). This demonstrates how mental disorders affect more than just the brain, and can be physically debilitating for students. Eating disorders and self-injury are two more examples of mental health problems that physically affect college students, and in a study of nearly 800 college students over a two-year period, one third of them were diagnosed with one of these disorders (Zivin et al 182). These illnesses can have a significant negative impact on “academic success, productivity, substance use, and social relationships” (Hunt and Eisenberg 3). To effectively eradicate alcoholism and unsafe sexual behavior on campus, universities must reevaluate their causal understanding of the issues and focus on the overarching problem of mental health, not its symptoms. The relative lack of attention that administrators pay toward mental health disorders on campus is not just a product of poor prioritizing, but is due in part to the fact that administrators are genuinely unaware of the amount of students that are dealing with them.
One contributor to the ignorance surrounding mental health issues on college campuses is that most students do not know that their feelings of sadness or emptiness, typically downplayed as homesickness or stress, are actually symptoms of larger mental health problems. This phenomenon is put into perspective by a study of university students’ help-seeking attitudes, which shows that of the participants who screened positive for depression, only about 65% of them believed they needed help (Eisenberg et al 596). Another reason colleges are unaware the actual need for more educational mental health programs is that students are often reluctant to seek counseling or therapy to improve their mental health, due to possible alienation from peer groups. Of college students that were diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety, only 34% of them took medication or went to therapy/counseling (Eisenberg et al 596). This is due to several factors such as the negative stigmas, like social seclusion, associated with mental illness, or the doubt that therapy or medication will even prove beneficial. These misconceptions of mental disorders perpetuate the norm of not getting proper treatment, especially in the college setting where mental illness is constantly normalized as a part of the “college experience”. Ironically, the reasons why universities are not aware of the amount of mental health problems on their campuses are directly caused by the inadequate education about mental health in the first place, creating a complicated paradox. Colleges are not properly educating their students about mental health, resulting in students’ obliviousness to their own mental health problems, and subsequently decreasing the amount of students actively seeking help. This causes mental health programs to appear less essential than they actually are, because the disproportionately low number of students that seek help is falsely interpreted as an absence of mental health problems in students, when in actuality, it is an absence of knowledge about mental health problems.
With an issue as complex as the mental health of college students, the solution is equally complicated, but the logical first step is to implement programs that educate students about numerous aspects of mental illness. Primarily, students need to be informed of specific symptoms to look for in themselves and in their peers that suggest there may be a mental health disorder present. Waking up every morning wondering if life is worth living is not indicative of a healthy state of mind, and students need to be aware of this and other common symptoms of mental health disorders. Additionally, programs that will remove the negative stigmas associated with treatment need to be implemented in universities nationwide, so students are more likely to seek treatment options for their disorders. In one of the two online alcohol education courses that I was required to take upon attending USC, statistics were presented to me about the actual number of college students that report drinking regularly, which was surprisingly lower than I had originally thought. This information effectively removed the false notion I had about how prevalent drinking culture is at my university. Similarly, if colleges required online courses that presented statistics about the actual number of students that suffer from a mental health problem, the stigma that having a mental disorder makes you different or an outsider would be quickly eliminated, and students would be more apt to get counseling or therapy to address what they’re experiencing. Lastly, if colleges were required by law to educate students about mental health, the conversation would become more commonplace, effectively addressing the reluctance of students to seek help by normalizing proactive discourse. This would eventually change universities’ view of mental disorders to something along the lines of: “Students are likely to experience mental health problems such as depression or anxiety at some point during their college years, so we must guarantee that they are treated in the best way possible.” This is certainly not wishful thinking, because over the years the attitude toward college drinking has shifted from promoting abstinence to encouraging safety and responsibility in drinking, acknowledging the reality that students will likely engage in it during their time at school.
As previously mentioned, mental health is a complicated issue, and proper education about mental health only addresses one piece of the multi-layered problem. Poor mental health on college campuses is not solely a problem of lack of education, but it is also a problem of lack of information about the accessibility of treatment options compounded with an absence of adequate mental health departments at college campuses. In a survey that analyzed the accessibility of health care to college students, 51% of students reported that they would not know where to go for mental health care at their university, and 41% of students reported that they were unaware of free counseling services on campus (Eisenberg et al 597). Because of this, students that actually do realize they are suffering from a mental disorder do not know how to go about getting treatment, or they are discouraged by how costly they believe treatment is. Students need to be aware that treatment is readily available and know where and how to access the treatment, because without this information, the education about their mental illness becomes useless. Every school’s health department is different, so universities need to include this information prominently in their incoming student handbooks and orientation programs, ensuring that each student enters their institution knowing exactly where to go for mental health services if needed.
Properly educated about mental illness and equipped with the knowledge of where to go for treatment, one may think that the mental health problems college students face would be solved, but according to the National Survey of College Counseling Centers, in 2014 “the ratio of counselors to clients, on average, was 1 to 2,081 students” (Gallagher 4), presenting one last layer to the problem. Universities need to make an effort to expand and improve their mental health departments to properly accommodate students who need to see counselors or therapists. Based on Hunt and Eisenberg’s findings that half of the students at any given university suffer from a mental disorder at some point in their college career (4), Gallagher’s counselors to clients ratio asserts that one counselor would be responsible for treating about 1,041 students adequately for their symptoms. In a 15-week semester, this would mean seeing roughly 69 clients a week which averages to 10 students a day, including the weekend. When asked in an interview how difficult it is to see “10 or 15 clients a day,” clinical psychologist Dr. Leah Klungness replied, “First of all, I don’t see that many clients daily. Each session is approximately one hour, and I definitely don’t work 15 hours per day. If any mental health professional sees 15 people per day, they’re in the nod and smile school of psychotherapy.” This reveals that on average, collegiate mental health departments are understaffed and therefore a gross disservice to the students who count on their undivided attention and focus. If universities want to truly reduce suicides and other effects of mental illness in their students, they need to be willing to direct funds towards hiring a sufficient staff so that quality, accessible care is available to every student who needs it.
When no one addresses a problem as complex as the mental health of college students, it is left on the back burner to issues that everyone openly talks about, like alcohol consumption and sexual behavior. The lack of discussion around this issue makes it worse, and “94% of directors report that recent trends toward [a] greater number of students with severe psychological problems continue to be true on their campuses” (Gallagher 5). Countless studies have been conducted that reveal a high prevalence of mental disorders on college campuses that negatively affect students, yet we seem blind to the complications that untreated mental disorders cause for college students not only in their college years, but in their post-college lives as well. Most mental disorders have an onset before age 24 (Kessler at al), so it is imperative that we pay attention to the college environment, where mental disorders are most likely to be in their early stages. Failure to treat mental disorders in their earlier stages is “associated with a longer course of illness and more frequent relapses” (Hunt and Eisenberg 6), meaning that students end up taking their depressive thoughts or anxiety with them into adulthood. Additionally, studies show that certain untreated mental disorders have a strong correlation with future diagnoses of additional mental health complications (Zivin et al 183), emphasizing the dangerous snowball effect created when college students do not or cannot properly manage their mental health. The United States government and/or universities nationwide need to begin implementing mandatory mental health awareness programs, because this issue cannot be ignored any longer. By doing so, they will contribute to the creation of a society where suicide rates are on the decline and anxiety, depression, eating disorders, etc. are no longer the norm.
Shaina Wottitz is a senior majoring in communication with a minor in screenwriting. She was born and raised in Boca Raton, Florida and moved out to California for her freshman year at USC. She is currently working at Nickelodeon and wants to pursue a career in television writing after graduation. Shaina incorporates experiences and education relating to mental health disorders in her academic and personal writing whenever possible. She believes important ongoing issues are forgotten if they aren’t perceived as “topical”, and thinks it’s important to keep the conversation about mental health disorders open and active.
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