THE BLOG

Colleges Can Do More to Help Students With Mental Health

02/28/2013 04:17 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2013

Last year we lost a nursing student to suicide where I teach at DePaul University in Chicago. He was a beautiful person who was a brilliant budding nurse. He held a bachelor's degree from an elite university, was an Eagle Scout and was loved for his unique sense of humor.

It was devastating to the other students, faculty, and of course his family. The memorial service was lovely and the overarching feeling was we wish you had known how much we admired and loved you.

The lingering question is how can we better assist students facing mental health problems in colleges the United States?

This week an anonymous Harvard student struggling with schizophrenia described the gaps in support for poor students who have mental health issues. The article entitled "In Sight, Out of Mind" highlighted the delays in getting mental health treatment during a crisis and the overarching condescending advice from a social worker who didn't acknowledge the student's hearing voices when he told her about it and advised taking herbal tea. Harvard is not the only school that students say should improve mental health services.

In recent National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) surveys, more than 62 percent of students who withdrew from college with mental health problems did so because of the challenges with managing school and mental health.

Depression is the most common mental health challenge in addition to anxiety and eating disorders. The high rate of students who leave college hints at the lack of adequate mental health services for students.

Forty percent of students seeking mental health services reported a wait of five days or more. Clearly colleges and universities need to do a better job of providing mental health services and making sure students know how to access the services.

SAMHSA's health survey in 2008 found that young adults ages 18 to 25 were more likely than adults ages 26 to 49 to have serious thoughts of suicide (6.7 percent versus 3.9 percent). Among 15 to 24 year olds there are 100 to 200 attempts for every completed suicide. The highest rate of attempted suicide is among Hispanic females at 13.5 percent. Suicide completion is four times higher in males and firearms are most common in males. The most common method for females is poisoning.

Emergency mental health services must be available for all students. In addition to emergency services, mental health services for chronic mental health management needs to be available on campus. The availability of such services is critical for the ongoing safety and quality of life for all students, not just those challenged by mental health issues.

To be sure, colleges cannot guarantee that all students with mental health issues get help. Students are not obligated to disclose to the schools information about their mental health history. But the accessibility of good emergency mental health services may be able to save a few lives by preventing a tragedy such as a recent murder-suicide at the University of Maryland.

The shooter, Dayvon Maurice Green , according to local news reports, was a graduate student who struggled with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He lived off campus in a home with two undergraduate students.

Green allegedly started a fire early in the morning of February 12. After two undergraduate roommates evacuated the home, Green allegedly gunned them down and then went inside and took his own life. One of the two male roommates survived, the other died on site.

I understand that we cannot prevent all suicides or tragedies. But at least we can try to be aware of the signs of a student in distress who may be in need of help.

Warning signs include sleep disturbances, withdrawn or depressed mood, anxiety or agitation, giving away possessions, mentioning that life isn't worth living or joking about suicide and general changes in personality.

Whether the stress, the economy or other factors are to blame, the important issue to knowing the statistics, the risk factors, and the signs that someone may be considering suicide. Also, people should not hesitate to ask the person whether they are considering suicide and if they have a plan. If the answer is yes to either question, the following should be done:

1. Get them help immediately.

2. Take them to the emergency room or call 911 if they say they want to hurt themselves at that time.

3. Call the suicide hotline to have the person screen for risk factors and connect with a mental health provider

4. Find a long-term therapist that can monitor the person.

At our university there is a counseling center available to all students. A same day phone or face-to-face assessment is available for students in crisis and there are additional longer-term treatments available.

If our student had known how loved he was and how much pain that his friends and family were going to suffer, he may not have gone through with his plan.