Mental Health and the Role of the Campus

Guiding students to help and support.

May 22, 2014

I recently asked my fellow University of Venus writers what resources they had on campus to support students in terms of their mental well-being.  It seems that all I’ve been reading about lately is how mental illness is on the rise in Academia, along with discussions on how to take care of yourself and how, when and where to ask for help.

My question in this post focuses on the “where.” I recently read an article discussing a student at Yale University who was threatened with expulsion because of her weight – her slight physique signalled an eating disorder, and their “concern” resulted in what sounded like a form of harassment, and their advice and monitoring of her food intake almost resulted in the disorder they were so afraid of. My own institution was also recently in the news due to our low student-to-counsellor ratio. Increasingly, institutions are implementing “student at risk” protocols to address behaviours and warning signs of students with the potential to cause harm to others or themselves. There are some strong views on what the roles and responsibilities of the University should be to address this growing concern.

As someone who struggled with anxiety while completing my master’s degree, as well as simultaneously acting in an administrative role for students and programs, I can appreciate the complexities from both perspectives. I found completing my degree to be exhausting, isolating and damaging to my ego and spirit. It also opened up a myriad of opportunities for me, enriched my life, and profoundly changed my world view.

But what exactly was the role of my professors, administrators and the Student Services Department in terms of monitoring how I was actually coping with my program? Student-at-risk protocols, Counselling Services, Department Program Committees and even the Provincial Government all intersect to provide an environment that regulates the amount of work, evaluation structures, tuition fees and support resources provided to, and imposed on students.

During the course of my degree, I began to see a therapist, was prescribed anxiety medication and was consistently applying for tuition supplements from the institution after each course. I battled my depression, occasionally had financial concerns, and of course struggled to find the time to complete my assignments while working full-time and doing mundane tasks like laundry, seeing family and trying to sustain a relationship.

The expectation in some of the programs and protocols that Universities are launching is that someone is going to *notice* that students are in crisis. Now at the graduate level, I was fortunate to have an advisor, and the classes were very small. However, in an undergraduate course of 100+ students, will a faculty member necessarily notice that a student is struggling? And will they necessarily know what to do about it if they do? These programs require training on multiple levels; is it useful to have a number of counsellors equipped with strategies and policies at their fingertips if faculty members or administrators at my level don’t know what to look for in their brief student interactions?

I have had students crying in my office, as I imagine many faculty and staff members have. However, I can’t always discern whether I am witnessing a moment of frustration, or a deep-rooted cause for concern. And therein lay the gap. We are expected to look after our students, students who are independent adults. The line between showing concern and appearing punitive is a fine one. Yale was demonstrating some laudable care with the student mentioned above, and if she was genuinely ill, they likely would have felt the ramifications of ignoring the warning signs.  I guarantee though, not one of my instructors knew that I was in crisis during my degree, as I certainly didn’t feel I was in a position to demonstrate what I feared would be construed as “weakness” to people who were both my instructors and co-workers. How many other students find themselves disguising their struggles due to a still existing stigma?

Universities often try to be one-stop-shops. I’ve seen campuses with hairdressers, banks, doctors, lawyers, grocery stores and more. But the mandate of a University is to educate, and I would argue that one is not only there to learn how to cure White Nose Syndrome, but also to become  more resourceful individuals – and if our sorely overtaxed Counselling Services are only able to offer a referral, then perhaps that is the wiser path. But where does that leave the students who need our help?


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