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Mental Illness and Stigma an Increasing Problem on College Campuses

For many, the start of college life goes beyond a simple adjustment period and can lead to serious mental health disorders.

It’s natural for new college students to feel uncomfortable as they begin to transition into their campus environments. But for many, the start of college life goes beyond a simple adjustment period and can lead to serious mental health disorders.

According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, 47.5 percent of students seeking psychiatric services had never attended counseling prior to entering college. Additionally, the American Psychological Association reports that 94 percent of Counseling Center Directors surveyed noticed an increase in students with “severe psychological problems.”

Particularly at high-pressure universities, extreme stress is often normalized, even expected. But at a certain point, stress creeps into the territory of an anxiety disorder. The National College Health Assessment showed that 60.8 percent of students felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year.

Becca Rennert, a recent graduate from Georgetown University, told The Globe Post, “I absolutely think stress culture contributes to mental illness and stigma on campus.” Becca was part of a student-led organization called Project Lighthouse, an anonymous support network that allows students to reach out to trained peers through an online chat system, every night from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Project Lighthouse is one of the many peer support organizations that have begun cropping up on college campuses all over the country. The largest organization, called Active Minds, was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2003, and can now be found on over 600 college campuses. Active Minds was founded by an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in response to the suicide of her older brother. Its chapters host various speakers, suicide prevention initiatives, and de-stress events to facilitate an open dialogue about mental health.

“Peer mental health organizations are a great complement to counseling services on a college campus. Research demonstrates that these organizations, such as Active Minds, can have a measurable impact on reducing stigma, improving knowledge, and increasing helping-behaviors,” Sara Abelson, the program director of Active Minds at the University of Michigan, told The Globe Post.

In addition to peer support networks, students have the option of reaching out to their campus counseling and psychiatric services. However, many colleges, particularly those lacking endowments, don’t have the resources to provide students with sufficient services.

“We found that a lot of students who needed mental health services appeared to be going off campus to get them. Some of that may be that they are able to get services more quickly, and there may be more specialized services in the community,” Dr. Bradley Stein, a senior physician policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, told The Globe Post

Many student governments are also calling for their universities to allocate more resources towards counseling services. The Georgetown University Student Association passed a referendum this spring that calls for the university to subsidize off-campus psychiatric services for students who require ongoing treatment.

Unfortunately, universities have several competing demands, Dr. Stein said. Most alumni and parents are clamoring for the university to invest their resources in other programs. Yet schools are incentivized to provide psychiatric services that increase the well-being of their students. Mental health disorders tend to coincide with lower GPAs and an increased likelihood of dropping out, Abelson explained. By improving the mental health of its students, colleges can increase retention and tuition revenues.

Services can certainly yield economic benefits for the universities. Healthy Minds data from the University of Michigan suggested programming that works to reduce depression among 500 students can result in millions of dollars in economic benefits for a cost of under one million dollars.

But having the services is just “one piece of the jigsaw puzzle,” Dr. Stein said. Mental health programming is futile if there is still so much stigma that students refuse to reach out for help, or don’t have the peers and friends that can get them the support they need.

Rennert believes that the key to promoting a campus climate that is open to discussing mental health is collective action: “I think we can do this by internalizing positive programming and hold ourselves and our friends to actually adopt a stress-less cultural, rather than briefly enjoying such programming before returning to the library to pull an all-nighter to finish that paper, etc.”

Colleges and universities have the responsibility of not only educating generations but preparing them for lifetime prosperity. Abelson said that universities can “help ensure that the next generation of adults are better educated about mental health, are more prepared to support friends and family when they face mental health concerns, and have greater access to the clinical services, resources and tools needed for taking care of their own mental health – an essential component of lifetime health and success.”

The stigma surrounding mental health is not isolated to universities, but these institutions have a unique ability to facilitate dialogue and support systems that help promote open dialogue about mental illness and well-being.

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