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Reframing Our Campus Mental Health Discussion

Time for a different sort of conversation.

November 1, 2018
 
 

The conventional wisdom is that higher education is in the midst of a student mental health crisis.

Could it be that conventional wisdom is wrong?

Might we reframe the growing utilization of campus mental health services as a positive development?

Is it possible that the growing number of students seeking and receiving help for challenges related to anxiety, depression, relationship problems and stress (the top reasons that students access services) is an indication of a more enlightened generation? One that is strong enough to ask for help, rather than the fragile and needy people that today’s college students are so often labeled?

There is no doubt that the demand for campus mental health services is increasing.

A 2016 report from Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that campus counseling centers have needed to increase service hours for “rapid-access” consultations by 28% over the last six years.  Colleges and universities have struggled to fund the mental health professionals needed to keep up with this growing campus demand.

John Kroger, a former president of Reed College, writes that “...many presidents worried that their campuses simply cannot manage the cost and burden of operating full-service mental health programs.  Some presidents talked openly about scaling back or outsourcing their programs and the need to decrease parental expectations of care in order to keep costs in check.”

This idea that mental health services are a drain on resources tells only half the story. While caring for our students is expensive, the alternative may end up being much costlier.

What is seldom reported is how effective counseling, and in some instances counseling paired with medications, can be in improving student mental health.

Anxiety, depression, stress and other challenges that cause students to ask for help are exceedingly amenable to treatment. Advances in brain science, pharmacology, and cognitive behavioral therapies have significantly improved treatment options and outcomes. It should strike us as backward and wrong if people, including our students, suffer from ailments that are so readily treatable.

The concern about the cost of supporting the mental health well-being of our students should be balanced against the gains in student success. We can’t argue that students should strive for resilience and grit unless we give them the tools, and when necessary a helping hand.

This is not to deny that providing these services are expensive. Any commitment to educating the whole person will always be resource intensive. People’s lives are complicated. In this age of economic insecurity and rising college costs, the lives of college students may be more complicated than most.

Just as we see investments in other aspects of educational life as a positive, perhaps we should think of mental health services in the same way.

It is possible to be worried about the impact of rising college prices and student debt, while also being grateful for all those things that make US higher education the envy of the world.  These attributes include highly trained and dedicated professors, advanced classrooms and labs, and other elements of the campus infrastructure that support learning and knowledge creation.

We are all proud when our school can invest in a new science building or can recruit a high-quality scholar/educator.

Perhaps we should be equally proud when our institutions find the resources to invest in our students' well-being.

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