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The Fragile State of Student Mental Health

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

I’m still processing the coincidence of the noteworthy suicides of two rich and famous people and the release of new statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that say suicides grew at a 25-percent rate nationally from 1999 to 2016.

And then I thought about my students. I just finished teaching a class as an adjunct at San Francisco State University. Many of my students probably would have liked to have been Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade, before last week.

I don’t think anyone would have wanted to be part of the trend from the newly released CDCP statistics. But the old stats are scary enough. According to the National Institute of Mental Health site, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 15-34. It’s estimated that among those ages 18 to 25, the prime college years, 8.3 percent have had suicidal thoughts.

The new CDCP stats show a real diversity trend. The New York Times reports that the suicide rates have risen in most age and ethnic groups, even as rates of treatment and diagnosis have increased.

The big problem is that nearly 80 percent of people who commit suicide deny they are even thinking about it, according to Harvard professor of psychology Matthew Nock. So, how do you help people in denial, who when asked if things are okay always say things are okay, even when they’re not?

This is the state of mental health today. You got to keep them talking, if you’re lucky enough to get them to talk to you.

Most of the time, you will get silence. Or the good lie. Whether it be the stigma or the height of low self-esteem— not wanting to bother people with their personal dilemmas — silence is seen as a better option. No wonder meds are a go-to treatment, by default.

For me, this is a fairly recent phenomenon. When people talked about being on “meds,” I only knew from my experience as a child of Filipino immigrant parents who were heavy and suffered from heart disease.

Meds? Those were for blood pressure, heart and diabetes.

But pyschiatrics?

That was for the worried. And definitely not for people of color.

Mental health? See a psychiatrist? Freud wasn’t our cultural standard.

Maybe you’d see a family elder. Or see a priest, even if the priest may have caused the psychological trauma.

Better outreach to ethnic communities is needed. In my youth, you rarely heard anything about mental health in the Asian American community. But now I know of people close to me who have come right up to the edge and have benefitted from treatment.

So, of course, now I’m wondering if I missed any signs from any of my students this past semester.

At least three students, all students of color, talked to me about issues that they said required some treatment. No specifics were given. Remember, I’m an adjunct, not a doctor.

And, of course, they could’ve been looking for an excuse on a late paper.

But was it a muted cry for help?

One student sent me emails almost from the beginning. We met during office hours, and I told the student to seek help.

The student appeared to feel better. Attendance improved. But toward the end of the semester, the final paper wasn’t turned in. And then for the final exam, the student was a no-show.

I sent an email and heard nothing.

I did what I could to avoid giving a failing grade, and hoped all was well.

As an adjunct, what more could I do?

But the news of Bourdain, Spade and the CDCP put a point on what will be my lasting memory from my return to teaching last semester. I knew things would be different. For example, what happened to my overhead projector!

There are all these news things I wasn’t expecting to deal with that go well beyond the lectures, papers and grades.

I had been aware of issues like securit,y given the spate of school shootings around the nation. And, of course, this semester, Parkland happened. Trainings have increased. Just last week, my school did a drill with real blanks for realism.

And I knew to expect a greater awareness of the sexual harassment laws and Title IX, given the rise in lawsuits against colleges.

I just didn’t expect to see this other area so prominent — the concern over state of the student mind.

It leaves me at the end of the semester wondering if I recognized or missed any signs in the fragile state of my own students’ mental health.

It’s the two-way street of modern teaching. Aside from some lectures, some papers and a final exam, I’m proud to say nothing happened during my watch.

Maybe some learning occurred. But as far as I know, no one was hurt. My first semester back in a while? We all survived.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes on diversity issues for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund at




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