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.
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