The adage “the only thing constant in life is change” is especially true for young adults. The college years are full of change, which, for some, can cause anxiety, sadness, stress or hopelessness. Though these feelings can be a typical part of the college experience, some people may require additional support to help them cope. Statistically speaking, one out of every four adults will experience a mental health disorder within any given year. It’s a common occurrence, yet we live in a country where mental illness comes with a side of stigma and a second helping of hardly anyone caring. Sounds harsh, but, when you look at the facts, it’s clear to see that we are a nation that is failing those who are in desperate need of professional help.
Dr. Victor Schwartz, Medical Director of The Jed Foundation, a leading not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting emotional health and preventing suicide among college students, answers a few questions regarding mental health among college students and what college campuses are doing to address the issue.
Q: Is mental health or suicide an issue on college campuses?
A: Yes; emotional challenges can impact the well-being and success of many college students. There are 20 million students in post-secondary education in the United States, and, over the past year, 21.2 percent have received a psychiatric diagnosis or were treated for mental health issues. When emotional health problems and mental illness are not addressed, they can lead to substance abuse, self-harm and suicide, the second leading cause of death among college students.
Q: Are colleges prepared to deal with students that suffer from mental health issues?
A: Comprehensive mental health and suicide prevention programming varies from campus to campus. Most schools provide some direct counseling services, but too often there’s not a holistic, campus-wide approach to mental health. With a campus-wide approach to mental health promotion, campuses can be safer with healthier students and possibly improved student retention.
Q: What are some things institutions can do to make sure their mental health programs are helpful?
To ensure mental health programs are valuable and useful, institutions should focus on fostering a healthy learning environment through program reviews and, where necessary, changes and enhancements. Institutions should be promoting life skills and resiliency through training and leadership development. Schools should be finding ways to make mental health services easily accessible with innovative outreach methods and deliver crisis management services that involve multiple campus organizations. In addition, it is crucial that comprehensive
programming includes programs to foster a campus culture that promotes connectedness, belonging and a community accepting of students that reach out for help.
Q: What impact do effective mental health programs have on enrollment and graduation rates?
A: We know that the problems that affect students the most – anxiety, depression and substance abuse – have a direct correlation with drop-out rates. Our hope is that, with improved life skills, resiliency and access to good mental health care, students can address these challenges and work toward positive outcomes like academic success.
Q: What are a few key things colleges can do to improve their current mental health and suicide prevention programs?
A: There are many opportunities to strengthen mental health support systems. For instance:
- Engaging in campus-wide strategic planning to identify specific issues related to mental health and substance abuse and develop action plans to address them.
- Training new faculty, students and staff to identify at-risk students and refer them to appropriate counseling services.
- Advocating for mental health as a campus-wide issue.
- Creating a task force to promote mental health.
- Increasing programs to identify and support incoming at-risk students.
- Engaging in environmental safety scans of a campus to locate potential sources of danger.
- Building student affairs programs that enhance life skills and student connectedness.
Q: Where can people go for more information?
A: For more information, visit www.jedcampus.org.
Thank you to Dr. Victor Schwartz for consenting to this interview.