A Matter of Federal Significance

College health officials can't go a day without discussing mental health, but President Obama tried to accelerate a national discussion about it at a White House conference Monday.

June 4, 2013

WASHINGTON -- Politicians, celebrities and public policy experts were in abundance here Monday at a White House Conference on Mental Health called by President Obama, but there weren't many -- if any -- students.

That is despite not only the fact that portions of the conference focused on how to best address mental health issues at schools and universities, but also that speakers throughout the day argued that the student voice is critical to this dialogue.

"It's not enough for a bunch of intelligent adults to sit in a room talking to each other," said Dave DeLuca, head of campaigns for dosomething.org and the Crisis Text Line, projects that connect young people to help by reaching them in ways they feel comfortable with such as text messaging and social media. "We have to make sure that we -- everybody in here -- bring young people to the table.... By bringing them to us and letting them be a part of it, that's how we will start to make a significant change on mental health."

As Obama noted in his opening remarks, one in five adults experience some form of mental illness each year – whether it be anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or something else – fewer than 40 percent of those people get treatment.

“We wouldn’t accept it if only 40 percent of Americans with cancer got treatment,” Obama said. “We know help is available and yet as a society, we often think about mental health issues differently…. We’ve got to get rid of that stigma.”

More than 62 percent of students who withdrew from college with mental health problems did so for that reason, a survey found last year, and while many of those students report inadequate service from their health or counseling centers, the directors who run those offices are treating more severe psychological problems than ever. And while there’s certainly been improvement over the years, many students still don’t even seek help because of the stigma that Obama and others lamented at length Monday.

That stigma, the student voice and the effect of mental illness on veterans were the three major themes running through the conference, whose main purpose was to promote a national dialogue about mental health. (While noting that the topic is a bipartisan one – “it rings human,” Vice President Biden said – Obama and members of his administration spent a fair amount of time promoting their mental health budget allocations and mandatory health insurance plan.)

Norman Anderson, chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association, noted that his organization has partnered with both the American Council on Education and NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. Together, they will gather and distribute best practices for targeted treatment of college students with mental health problems.

“If they’re dealing with challenges that they don’t have the help they need to help deal with those, everything we ask them to do academically becomes next to impossible,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at the day’s second panel discussion. But, Duncan said, to see a dialogue about this at the national level, “it makes me wildly hopeful about what our young people can do in terms of fulfilling their academic and social potential.”

At Georgetown University, faculty are integrating mental health topics into curriculums in 225 courses through the institution’s Engelhard Project for Connecting Life and Learning. Students say it raises their awareness of issues they may not know are affecting their peers, and makes them more comfortable asking for help and sharing resources with friends. The program also adds an extra layer of support for students who may be struggling by strengthening their relationships with professors, Georgetown President John DeGioia said.

“They are breaking down stigma and stereotypes and becoming more attentive and reflective, applying course content to their personal lives,” DeGioia said. “We simply developed a new context in which conversations about mental health could take place.”

The program has also helped forge partnerships between different divisions that didn’t exist before.

“By more deeply integrating our academic, student affairs and health personnel,” DeGioia said, “we’re able to better leverage each of their strengths.”

Vice President Biden lauded the Georgetown program, and said he hopes more campuses replicate it. But he also said instructors should be trained to identify at-risk students for whom that conversation isn’t enough. “We should be teaching our educators to recognize,” Biden said, “those things that are like the Roman candles that go off, that are totally inconsistent with behaviors that are considered to be appropriate.”

Getting students talking is also the key to Love is Louder, a campaign from MTV and the Jed Foundation that broadcasts personal stories of struggle and recovery from celebrities and (more relatable) students and teenagers. When major cultural events occur that have a big impact on the societal psyche, the campaign jumps on social media to talk about the issues.

“What we really aim to do is create campaigns that allow young people to speak for themselves,” said Noopur Agarwal, vice president for public affairs at MTV. “Tell authentic stories however you can, tap into relatable moments [like the recent Oklahoma tornadoes or Boston bombings], and make sure your audience feels empowered and like an active participant in your work.”

Some mistakenly think that because conversations like the one Monday at the White House are happening, that means there's no longer a stigma surrounding mental health issues and the people who struggle with them. But, actress Glenn Close said -- and college health officials and counselors would undoubtedly agree -- that is a misconception. Close co-founded Bring Change 2 Mind to help combat stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness.

“The truth is,” Close said, “the stigma has hardly budged.”


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