I was saddened last week to read about the suicide of Professor Will Moore at Arizona State University. Everyone’s path is different, but mine led me to attempt suicide last semester. Like Moore, I wrote a series of notes on social media and then did not expect to wake up. Waking up from a suicide attempt, the first thing I learned was that there is a latent social stigma around it that, in fact, protects suicide and helps it survive.
It struck me that Moore’s last note called out this “taboo” around suicide. He’s right. It is not to be talked about, especially in print. I experienced this in the first draft of this article, which was rejected by another publication that responded, “We receive dozens of manuscripts each week on all sorts of topics and have to make some tough choices.” Tough choices. Yes. Well, talking about suicide can even be difficult in therapy. I remember my therapist referring to it as “the overdose” with a bit of Southern charm -- suggesting that the issue wasn’t mental health, the norms of academe or a social system that has failed me but rather an unfortunate accident. My overdose was not an accident. And it had no charm.
I was teaching last semester, and halfway through I took pills. Specifically, a lot of pills. I took them on the weekend and woke up unexpectedly a day or so later. At some point early on, in the haze of consciousness and aliveness, I realized that I needed to prepare my lectures for the week. And so I did. I tried to kill myself on Saturday night, woke up on Sunday night and taught on Tuesday and Wednesday. In academe, that is part of the dysfunctional routine we normalize. We research and we teach, even when we have tried very hard to kill ourselves two days before. I think this is, dare I say, a fatal flaw in academe. So I wanted to note three things I have learned.
First, people might not understand the side effects from surviving trying to kill yourself. They are really terrible. If you go to the hospital, you might have a different experience because it is possible to pump your stomach, but I did not go to the hospital. I was worried about losing my job at the university if I did. What if they committed me? Who would teach my courses that week? Would this get out and be a mark against me in looking for future jobs?
So I stayed home and drank water. The results were physically devastating. I had difficulty walking and seeing for two weeks. I now have asthma and high blood pressure. Somehow I taught -- the way we all do when our friends tell us, “Whatever you do, don’t go in to work.” I stayed out of my colleagues’ way that week, got through my classes and went home to bed.
Second, there is no easy way to talk about mental-health events in the workplace. This truth was also echoed in the recent piece on Moore. How do you have a conversation that you have been systematically trained not to have? In our academic departments, we celebrate the arrival of new babies, we commemorate deaths, we bring cake for birthdays and we go out for drinks for promotions. We celebrate the positive but avoid confronting the often sad reality. Where does attempted suicide fit into this? Maybe it isn’t something to share. Maybe it is “too much information,” like domestic violence. Maybe this is another sad thing that is something to be silenced, hidden away -- assuming that next time, next time, it’ll be “successful.” That’s a much easier goal to have: death. It works for those who are suicidal and those who don’t want to have the conversation. Yet this uncomfortable situation betrays a truth that, in academe, this is a conversation literally dying to be had.
And, last, our students get it, yet we perpetuate a double standard. Our students experience mental-health issues, and we encourage them to talk and seek help. Our students attempt suicide and we give them support in class. It would never sink their future careers. When it is us, however, we shut down.
So we (the academy) should ask why we are tiptoeing around an issue that is part of the lived experience of our faculty and that, if unacknowledged, could lead to death. As many of us can attest, good mental health for all staff and faculty members is not a reality in most departments. I have written this piece using a pseudonym. As the Inside Higher Ed article on Moore noted, where you are in your career dramatically influences what you feel safe talking about. I am in the early part of my career, so I’m terrified of losing my employability.
Indeed, the real task falls to colleges and universities to step up on behalf of adjuncts, untenured professors and all other faculty and staff members. They should consider 2017 as an opportunity to engage not simply in suicide prevention but also suicide destigmatization. This is an affirmative step that should not wait for the death of another Moore or situations like mine. Because you cannot ask people who are suicidal to solve this problem -- that’s the whole point, we need help, and here we are, asking for it.
So I would leave you with this: very good people can have very bad days, and those people should not do what I did. They should go to the hospital, feel free to tell their colleagues and speak up about it before it is too late. Stigma is something we all reproduce or disrupt. Universities can be leaders here. Today.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24-7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information and local resources. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
The author works at a large public research university.
Survey suggests that increasing student demand for mental health services -- spurred by prevention and awareness campaigns -- may be leading colleges to focus less on ongoing treatment in order to respond more rapidly to high-risk students.
Submitted by Sarah Lyon on January 5, 2016 - 3:00am
Student Mental Health
Mental illness exists on any type of campus -- urban or rural, public or independent, prestigious or relatively unknown. Students of all class years, ethnicities, majors and socioeconomic backgrounds are susceptible. Thus, it is now time for every one of our colleges and universities to implement orientation seminars dedicated to educating new students about the campus resources and support systems available with regard to mental health. This effort can be particularly important in preventing campus suicides, now the second leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Recently, the state of Texas has made strides in this area. As a result of a bill passed this past June, Texas now by law “requires universities to show students a live presentation or video with information about mental health and suicide as part of their orientation.” But the concept of dealing with mental health within the collegiate setting is nothing new -- so why haven’t such orientation seminars been required all along?
Historically, mental health resources were not always well received. As one historian notes, “The stigma associated with admitting mental health problems, together with tight budgets and the wish to focus only on academics, has often constrained … the development of services.” Still, the historian explains, by the mid-20th century, half of colleges and universities had mental health-related programs on campus. Why, more than 60 years later, are we not giving these resources the full credit they deserve by emphasizing their benefits during the orientation period?
It should be noted that campus health programs came about even earlier than the 1950s. Princeton University is credited with having established the first on-campus resource in 1910 -- the service was formed to tackle the issue of strong students withdrawing from the university “because of emotional and personality issues.” Harvard University and Yale University both hired campus psychiatrists in 1925, and other institutions had done so even earlier. The mental hygiene movement, which one scholar referred to as “a movement whose aim is the promotion and preservation of mental health,” was one factor connected to the establishment of such resources at the time.
Unfortunately, today’s students are still abandoning higher education for reasons similar to those who left Princeton over a century ago. In 2012, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) released results from a survey of 765 college students experiencing a mental health condition, noting that 64 percent of respondents left college as a result of their condition. The survey findings indicate that half of the students who left an institution “did not access mental health services and support,” later noting that 24 percent of respondents cited a lack of information as one reason that they did not take advantage of such resources. In general, those students who left college cited “connecting with mental health providers earlier” as one factor that may have prevented them from withdrawing.
What’s more, over the years, students’ needs for mental health care have become more pressing. For instance, a 1998 paper found that the concerns of contemporary college students “include both the normal college student problems … as well as the more severe problems, such as anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, sexual assault and personality disorders.”
All of the above findings underscore the need for exposure to mental health-related services upon students’ arrival to campus. NAMI, too, advocates for orientation and campus tours to include information about mental health resources.
First-year orientation programming often includes sessions on alcohol use and abuse, sexual violence, and other topics pertaining to student health and lifestyles. In examining future programming, college administrators should make every effort to include a seminar detailing the resources that are available to those battling depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness. It is still important to consider the issue of stigma; as the NAMI report notes, “Stigma remains the No. 1 barrier to students seeking help.” Thus, a key benefit of making such seminars required for all first-years is that it eliminates any implication that any one student is personally facing a specific issue.
At such orientations, students can have the opportunity to practice asking each other difficult questions, such as, “Do you have thoughts of harming yourself?” They will learn how to delicately decipher why a friend seems upset and engage in sample conversations with peers. They can watch simulations that demonstrate how to respond to a friend who appears to be in distress.
These are all the same tactics that the University of Pennsylvania’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) counselors incorporate into their own training sessions. CAPS offers free workshops throughout each semester, during which students, faculty members and staff members have the opportunity to gain awareness of the university’s many resources designed to support individuals. Likewise, this type of workshop demonstrates how to be an ally for a peer suffering from mental illness. Ensuring students’ mandatory attendance to such a workshop during orientation will pave the way for a more supportive campus community as a whole.
By addressing mental health during the orientation period, students will begin their college careers with knowledge of the various challenges they or their peers may face at the present moment or at some point throughout their college career. With anxiety, depression, relationship problems and thoughts of suicide among the most common mental health concerns plaguing college students, it is imperative that our nation’s colleges and universities address this serious issue.
Sarah Lyon is a master’s candidate in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and a 2013 graduate of Colby College in Waterville, Me.
The most recent American Freshman Survey found that the emotional health of incoming freshmen is at its lowest point in at least three decades -- a finding that should be of concern to all of us in higher education. Similarly, according to the National Survey of College Counseling Centers, 94 percent of counseling and psychological services (CAPS) professionals report that “recent trends toward greater numbers of student with some psychological problems continue to be true on their campuses.”
What can be done to alter these dire statistics? To help students prepare to meet the increased psychological demands required in modern life, colleges must provide additional support -- and not only from counseling professionals but also undergraduate advisers and faculty members.
Just ask any counseling and psychological services professional in your college or university and he or she will tell you that your students are not well emotionally, psychologically and physically, and those most responsible for their well-being -- advisers and faculty members -- have not been provided with a way to look at and help solve the problem. As one vice president of student affairs at a Big Ten university declared recently, “CAPS is receiving higher incidences of anxiety and depression” with “more so than usual behavior issues, where needs continue to grow each year and there is a long, growing waiting list.” He concluded, “We are not going to find enough money to remedy the situation.”
This is a sad commentary that expresses the depth of resignation among college and university leaders that anything can be done to reverse such a troubling situation.
Institutional leaders, frontline advisers and faculty members have been led to believe that if college students do well academically -- and take advantage of internships and student activities or develop a scholarly relationship with a close faculty mentor -- then they will also be happy, healthy and flourishing in higher education and life. That is a false belief that we should not perpetuate.
Senior administrators need to view students, the academic advising relationship and the broader college experience through a new lens that focuses much more on students’ overall well-being and not just on academics and traditional extracurricular activities alone. Today’s faculty members and academic advisers are just not taught to think this way. They don’t have a way to look at the problem, nor do they have a definition of what constitutes “well-being” to guide their prevention and education programs.
Well-being is not simply the absence of mental or physical illness. Rather, it is the more positive connotation of how well your life is going. Well-being encompasses, among other things, emotional health, vitality and satisfaction, life direction and ability to make a difference, the quality of one’s relationships, and living a good life.
What is required in higher education today is a systematic process that helps students achieve their educational, career and personal goals by concentrating on areas of talent and engagement, dreams and passions. Such a student success strategy will stimulate and support students in their quest for an enriched quality of life. That will, in turn, result in higher student satisfaction, increased retention and graduation rates, and, at the most fundamental level, young adults who are fulfilled and psychologically healthy.
In fact, some institutions are already exploring some proven best practices that effectively infuse well-being approaches beyond counseling and psychological services into academic advising, curricula and career counseling.
For example, one university where I was both a dean and professor applied an approach that we called Self Across the Curriculum (SAC). We required all students at the beginning of a new 16-week course to discuss with their professor how the course could help them better understand their distinct purpose in life. Faculty members designed weekly lesson activities that allowed students to design real-world projects that allowed them to work, for example, on ways to stop bullying in middle schools. Students became engaged in their learning by being intrinsically motivated to use their talents and skills to deal with real problems. Further, they encouraged and moved each other by revealing their highest hopes and dreams for a better world where children and people treated each other with kindness and love.
Retention rates increased by 26 percent for the entire institution, with student satisfaction scores going up by almost 40 percent -- demonstrating that students feel empowered to persevere and are happier about who they are and their course work when they learn about themselves and see the tangible contributions they can make.
In addition, academic advisers at that same university then applied the scientifically based Integrated Self (iSelf) model, an assessment and intervention tool that links four functional areas that are crucial to student success: academic advising, career services, personal counseling and student engagement. This model measures multiple facets or attributes of psychological well-being, including: emotional and socioemotional intelligence; self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-understanding; personal identity and beliefs; and intrinsic motivation.
Through the iSelf model, the university offered a short, three-session workshop to help students understand their life purpose and dreams, then choose their academic program based upon that life purpose and those dreams, and then select a potential career path and internships that would manifest such expressions of themselves.
The result? The students in the class in general did whatever it took to remain in college and found new and creative ways to finance their education after taking the workshop. Further, they took it upon themselves to take ownership of their well-being and future direction -- resulting, for instance, in reduced levels of substance abuse that often accompanies anxiety and depression.
For example, one student who had limited financial means to even attend college expressed an interest in a “practical” career to satisfy her parents’ demands. As such, she was just going through the motions of attending classes and was not emotionally engaged in her expensive education. Through the workshop, she transformed her understanding of who she was and what she was meant to do with her life -- the distinct difference she could make.
She changed her academic major from Spanish to Social Policy and International Relations, and she then actively found and accepted an internship in Peru. She went on to empower inner-city people to make their communities and neighborhoods safer and cleaner and to improve their personal health by reducing obesity rates. Her self-esteem and confidence soared, giving rise to a dynamic personality that had lain dormant.
This university is just one example of how institutions can use new assessment and intervention tools to create a student-success model that is based on the latest research in the psychology of well-being and student-centered learning. The occasional seminar or mental health event, or worse, allowing CAPS to passively wait for students to voluntarily sign up for counseling, is simply not enough. Our colleges and universities need to actively offer educational prevention programs and to infuse the teaching of self-understanding and well-being throughout the curriculum.
At the very least, academic outcomes will go up. At best, we have happier, healthier, more productive young adults.
Henry G. Brzycki is the president of The Brzycki Group and the Center for the Self in Schools. His next book, co-authored with Elaine J. Brzycki, Student Success in Higher Education, will be published in June 2016. He can be contacted at: Henry@Brzyckigroup.com.
The family of a black Harvard graduate who committed suicide creates an organization in his honor that seeks to "improve the support for the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color."