- Special Reports
The pressure to make good grades, homesickness, financial challenges and unresolved family issues are factors that drive students to seek help while at college. However, campuses around the country are concerned about the large number of students whose mental illness goes unaddressed.
In recognition of World Mental Health Day and Mental Health Awareness Week, campuses are increasing their efforts to ensure that students are aware of programs and services available on and off campus to help them fight anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI’s) 2012 report, 75 percent of lifetime cases of mental health conditions begin by age 24; more than 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition within the past year; more than 80 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do; and 45 percent have felt things were hopeless. In addition, almost 73 percent of students living with a mental health condition experienced a mental health crisis on campus, yet 34 percent reported that their college did not know about their crisis.
While just about every U.S. college or university offers counseling and other support services for students, those working in the field want to do more to ensure that students don’t suffer in silence.
NAMI supports campus training and the creation of affinity communities and peer support and has campus clubs at 50 universities, with 170 more under way. The NAMI chapter at Notre Dame has been involved in activities including a two-mile suicide prevention walk, putting on educational programs, bringing speakers to campus, providing stress reduction tips on social media and volunteering with neighboring mental health programs.
NAMI also provides support and materials to campuses and has partnered with the National Panhellenic Conference and the North American Interfraternity Conference. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness.
At Valparaiso University in Indiana, Stewart Cooper, Ph.D., director of the university’s counseling center and psychology professor, said the number of students his team sees is on the rise.
“We do a lot of outreach here and provide a lot of planned programming,” said Cooper, who has served as the counseling center director for 25 years. “We assist students [in the] fall [during] Welcome Week; we do programs in the residence halls and with the Greek system, as well as classes on coping with stress and time management.”
“One thing that is different now is the economy,” Cooper said, explaining what is triggering the stress-induced ailments students are experiencing. “Students are facing increased pressure with the cost of higher education going up and the added pressure of indebtedness when they come out of school as opposed to just worrying about the job market.”
Valparaiso has 4,200 students, and Cooper said the counseling center sees about 70 students a month with issues of depression, anxiety, relationship issues, family problems or self-esteem being some of the top reasons students seek help.
Breaking Down the Stigma for Minority Students
While those in the field report that campaigns to educate students about mental health are helping to stave off stigmas about seeking help for mental illness, the challenges are even greater in minority communities.
“Blacks in general are more affected by the stigma of mental health because of a lack of education and understanding about mental disease,” said Jeffrey R. Gardere, Ph.D., assistant professor and course director, Behavioral Medicine at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York. “In addition, they do not seek care because of the lack of culturally sensitive and culturally competent therapists.
“However, African-Americans have come a long way and are much better about destigmatizing mental health issues and [are] actually getting help,” added Gardere.
A NAMI study reports that 45 percent of young adults who stopped attending college did so because of mental-health-related reasons and did not request accommodations. Fifty percent of them did not access mental health services and support either. Overall, 40 percent of students with diagnosable mental health conditions did not seek help. Concern of stigma was the number-one reason given.
“The stigma of having a mental health issue is hard to bear in general, but even harder for young people, especially in a college environment,” Gardere said.
According to NAMI, there is still much work to be done to eradicate the stigma associated with seeking help.
“The stigma around mental illness is still very much a problem,” said Bob Carolla, NAMI spokesman. “It’s gotten better in the past 20 [years], but we still have a long way to go. There are often violent stereotypes surrounding mental illness. We are still battling popular perceptions at times when stereotypes are attached to people’s fears, lack of knowledge and understanding.”
“People see mental illness from the perspective of the culture they live in,” Carolla continued. “Sometimes the stigma may be greater than in other communities. It is a factor in people being reluctant to seek help when they need it. Sometimes it is the fault of the mental health system that may not have professionals who understand the specific cultural needs of a community or who understand the influence or importance of extended family as part of the treatment and care.”
Headquartered in Arlington, Va., NAMI’s Multicultural Action Center works with African-American, Latino and Asian communities to provide educational programs and training. The Sharing Hope: Understanding Mental Health project worked specifically with African-American churches in terms of community outreach and education. Last year, it created a similar program for the Latino community in English and Spanish.
The Big Picture
The realities of mental health and college students can be a life-and-death matter. More than 1,100 college students’ lives are claimed by suicide each year. For students between the ages of 15 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death, and 7 percent of college students say they have considered it.
According to NAMI, while colleges have experienced an enrollment increase, they have also experienced an increase in the prevalence and severity of mental health issues experienced by students, as well as an increase in the number of students taking psychotropic medications. Mental health issues have also been found to be a leading impediment to academic success.
An American College Health Association study released in 2011 reported that students cited depression and anxiety as the top impediments to academic performance. In addition, 64 percent of young adults who are no longer in college cite mental-health-related reasons, with depression, bipolar disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder as the primary diagnoses. In addition, 31 percent of college students have felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, and more than 50 percent have felt overwhelming anxiety.
Global Mental Health Issues
Mental illness affects nearly 12 percent of the world’s population—450 million people or one out of every four people will experience a mental illness that would benefit from diagnosis and treatment.
World Health Day was established in 1992 in response to making mental health a global priority. Mental health services lack funding in many countries, particularly those with low to moderate incomes.
Mental Illness Awareness Week was established by Congress in 1990 and is observed on a local, grassroots level with activities varying from candlelight vigils for those who have committed suicide, art exhibitions, panel discussions, community projects and fundraisers to support local mental health organizations.
A global screening of the award-winning new movie “Hidden Pictures” can be downloaded today only at http://bit.ly/hidpics to establish a global dialogue about mental health issues.