There is a quiet crisis brewing on college and university campuses across the United States. Increasingly, the mental health needs of students are more complicated than in the past and cannot be adequately met by overwhelmed mental health services. The sad end in some cases is that students, unable to complete their work and manage their mental health needs, drop out. In the most tragic cases, suicide becomes a preferred way out.
Katie Couric put together a piece on suicide on college and university campuses. She found:
It's unclear what's driving the dramatic decrease in emotional health on campus. It's possible more students now feel comfortable seeking help in the first place, instead of bottling up their problems. Dr. Allison Baker, a child psychiatrist with the Child Mind Institute, also pointed out that more young people are receiving mental health treatment as children, which allows them to go to college in the first place. But many college counseling centers are ill-equipped to deal with these students' more complicated mental health issues.
What can be done? There are several measures that colleges and universities can take to support students with developing mental health issues, before these issues reach a crisis point.
- Accountability: To expect a 17 - 19 year old young adult, fresh from his/her parents' care, to be able to manage mental illness along with school work, bills, a part-time job, etc. is ludicrous. Students succumbing to mental health disorders need the opportunity to be in a supported, structured environment and be accountable to adults for day-to-day activities. This support at minimum would be to have a case manager, but more likely, a residential system that includes a "dorm parent" who is a trained mental health professional. Students sliding toward crisis need daily help managing their activities and ensuring they stick to their mental health plan.
- Improved Mental Health Services: Vastly expanded mental health care centers with experienced staff, the ability to get an appointment quickly (within a week would be preferred), and relationships with residential support services would be ideal. Schools can partner with mental health providers/organizations experienced with treating the complex mental health issues of young adults and interfacing with insurance providers.
- Crisis Response Training: Those who have regular interaction with students, including faculty, need to have training in the basics of identifying the most common mental health issues in students: anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse. An institutional plan for identifying at risk students and supporting them, including a 24/7 help-line number should be created and implemented. Everything from student questions about mental health to post-suicide peer support should be included in this comprehensive plan.
There is much more that colleges and universities can do to support the mental health needs of their students. Parents sending students off to school should ask about mental health support services and let their children know where to go if they need help. It is unacceptable to allow students to suffer when support services can be made available.