Mental Wellness at College

By Samantha Yates

Mental health at college is not a new concern, but it has become an issue of particular focus in recent years. While colleges and universities offer mental health resources as a matter of course, the effectiveness of these resources remains in question.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness found in a 2012 survey of students affected by mental illness that 64% left college as a result of their condition (with 24% of that group not knowing about available resources). Even more alarming, the third leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds is suicide.

The availability of resources is only one part of the conversation. Those resources need to target specific populations, such as women, athletes, African-Americans, Hispanics, etc., to address the specific challenges for each group.

For example, a 2015 Harris poll concluded that African-American students are not as emotionally prepared for college as white students and tend to keep their concerns to themselves, making them half as likely to be properly diagnosed. Additionally, at the January 2016 NCAA annual meeting, the organization’s medical chief cited mental health as one of its top concerns for athletes.

These distinct situations, in conjunction with an increased level of academic vigorousness and living on one’s own (perhaps for the first time) in a completely new situation, constitute a recipe for emotional breakdown.

Without accessible and comprehensive mental health services that can address overall issues in addition to more specific challenges, students are left floundering and are, understandably, likely to drop out of college.

The largest roadblock to treatment continues to be the stigma that mental illness holds, as if it were a personal shortcoming or a failure of character. The stigma is compounded by a guilt factor for those enrolled in higher education programs, because there is a certain amount of privilege that comes with the ability to go to college.

Additionally, some may misdiagnose their mental health conditions as a part of the emotional wear and tear of the process of earning a degree, and may ignore their mental wellbeing in favor of creating a jam-packed resume. The emphasis on being well-rounded students—excelling in academics, athletics, and extra-curricular activities—may leave little room for the care of one’s mental health.

The stigma and resignation that accompany mental illness have slowed the course of addressing the mental health conditions that affect a growing number of college students. Luckily, some recent trends are working to address the issue.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Counseling and Psychological Services, for example, offers workshops throughout the school year to educate students, faculty, and staff on how to deal with difficult situations in which they or a friend might need to seek assistance from counselors. Perhaps these sessions could happen during orientation where all first year students would be required to attend, ensuring awareness of the services and how to utilize them.

As they work toward creating resources to address unique challenges, particularly those faced by minority students, many colleges and universities are implementing programs to educate their communities about microaggressions, as well as instituting peer counseling programs, such as Project Rise at the University of Virginia.

For athletes, the NCAA’s medical chief introduced a new set of guidelines at their annual conference to work towards making mental health care as accessible as care for a physical injury.

Perhaps the best way to tackle the stigma of mental illness is to bring it to the forefront of the higher education conversation, in the hopes that improvements in the availability and quality of the resources will lead to acceptance and de-stigmatization of mental health concerns.

Samantha Yates is a junior at McDaniel College majoring in English and minoring in economics. McDaniel College is home to the Delta of Maryland Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.