How Prepared Are You? Mental Health Issues and Today’s College Student
Georgianna L. Martin, Millsaps College
Nearly one year ago, I was walking to work when I noticed a colleague talking to a typically vibrant, active, and involved first year student with whom I had previously had several encounters. On this particular day the student did not seem herself. She was speaking as if she was preaching on a street corner in an attempt to gather followers. She continually referred to herself as “a mover and a shaker” who was ready to “get this train rolling.” In less than a minute, it was easy to see that this was not a normal day for this student. She was not responding to our request to go inside and talk calmly and appeared to be extremely agitated. Later that morning, she was escorted off campus by Emergency Medical Technicians for psychiatric evaluation at a nearby hospital. She had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder months ago and was having a manic episode.
Many professionals in the field of student affairs will readily admit that they do not know as much as they should about counseling and mental health related issues, particularly as they relate to traditional aged college students. In fact, it is often very convenient to rely on our institutions’ counseling center staff to deal with these aspects of students’ lives and development. However, it is increasingly apparent that college and university personnel ought to be better equipped with information to effectively work with students who experience mental health issues. It is essential for student affairs professionals to understand their situations and get them the help they need to be successful in college. It is also apparent that the students on our campuses are often even less equipped than most professionals to understand and cope with the events surrounding their peers’ mental illness. These events have led many professionals in the field of student affairs to seek information and broaden their education and knowledge surrounding adolescent mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, as these are issues that many students experience. In addition to our own interests, it is known and observed that many of our university employers, as well as the professional associations we are members of, have increased their awareness and interest in the issues of adolescent mental health. This has been illustrated through the professional development opportunities that are available to us on our campuses, at professional conferences, and in the research that we read to stay abreast in our careers.
In a recent study conducted by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and Abbott Laboratories, it was found that a large number of mental illness cases are found among the traditional college aged population (Jawski, 2004). An important finding from this survey was the sizeable number of students who expressed experiencing symptoms associated with severe mental illness. The results of the survey showed that one in three students reported prolonged periods of depression, one in four reported suicidal feelings or thoughts, one in seven reported engagement in reckless behavior, and one in seven reported difficulty functioning at school due to psychological issues.
In spite of information that points to an increased number of diagnosed college-aged students with mental illness, there often appears to be a lack of education on the issue of parents, students, and university faculty and staff. Nearly half of all college students report that they received no education on issues related to mental health prior to beginning college (Jawski, 2004). Additionally, half of all college students report that they received no education or information regarding mental health issues or mental illness from their college or university (2004).
The question becomes: Why are mental health issues not being addressed as publicly as they could or should be? Kadison and DiGeronimo (2004) discussed their findings from a survey of college counseling center directors in a recent book addressing what they refer to as the “mental health crisis.” Their findings overwhelmingly pointed to lack of money as being the key reason for a lack of education and services related to mental health and wellness on college campuses. They explained, “higher education is a business. And like any other business, it strives to offer a quality product at a reasonable price” (p. 164). For the average student affairs professional, this points to a need for creativity in programming and education as we are continually called upon to maximize our efforts and programs while minimizing or reducing spending.
The rise of students with mental illnesses on our campuses, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, presents a new area of programming and education to which we must now focus our attention. In recent years, fraternity and sorority professionals have turned attention toward other psychological and health related issues such as eating disorders, body image, and binge drinking. As the number of students with mental illnesses in college is likely to continually increase, so too should our ability to collaborate with counseling center staff as well as community based mental health professionals to provide the necessary education, awareness and programming for our students.
Kadison and DiGeronimo (2004) offered a final thought for college students dealing with a mental health crisis: “self-care is not the same as being selfish, be honest with yourself about what you’re feeling, eat, sleep, and exercise, stay connected to others, and think of proactive ways to address problems” (p.238). There are often times when a fraternity and sorority advisor or professional is the only trusted contact and resource for a student in need. It is essential for those who are in these positions of trust and confidence to be aware of the resources available on their campuses, including whom a student should be referred to for professional help and counseling.
Listed below are some additional resources addressing mental health issues:
· National Mental Health Awareness Campaign (AFA Associate Member)
· Screening for Mental Health (AFA Associate Member)
· Active Minds on Campus (student-run mental health awareness, education, and advocacy organization)
· American Psychological Association (APA)
· National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
· National Institute of Mental Health (NIMI)
· National Mental Health Association
Jawski, L. (2004, August 31). Mental illness prolific among college students. Message posted to news: http://www.pnnonline.org/article.php?sid=5429&mode=thread&order=0
Kadison, R., & DiGeronimo, T. F. (2004). College of the overwhelmed: The campus mental health crisis and what to do about it. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.