Mental Illness in the Student Population

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Addressing the challenges posed by mental illness is a top priority in many segments of American society and allocating resources is a continuous challenge. College campuses across the country indicate the need for better use of resources. As the severity of a mental illness compounds, it may come to pass that the affected students are unable to relate to their peers and instructors. Studies have shown that, “On most campuses, approximately 10% to 15% of students were accessing mental health services each year” (Kraft, 2011, p. 480). This percentage indicates between two and four thousand students on an average size campus seek mental health assistance, and this number does not include those who need it but never ask for it. 

Taking the time necessary to establish systems of diagnosis and treatment for students with mental illness requires both funding and a willingness to change on behalf of teachers, administrators, and the students themselves. Providing college campuses with the necessary resources in terms of mental health professionals also gives students access to competent assistance. Importance should be placed on finding and treating mental illness in student populations earlier and more effectively. Focusing on three inter-related areas will help colleges increase awareness of and empathy for students suffering from mental illness:  increasing mental health services funding, de-stigmatizing mental illness among students, and providing more on-site therapists. 


No solution for improving mental health services on college institutions is possible without the money to pay for it. Increasing funds for mental health services in general should be a priority for all levels of government. Most colleges are public institutions which fall under the auspices and assistance of government administrations. Kemp (2007) points out that states are the major players in the public mental health system in the United States. Not only would colleges benefit from increased state funding, but allocated resources for otherwise neglected areas could go a long way. Hazen, Goldstein and Goldstein (2011) describe how a proliferation of funding for mental health services comes from state governments, although those services are often only available to the severely impaired. 

Furthermore, funding to support services for students who suffer from less dramatic but often very damaging disorders, such as anxiety and mood disorders should also be increased. It has been demonstrated that, “efforts to treat students with mental illness, trend research on entering college populations suggested a need to address mental health–related issues among the broader college student population” (Fink, 2014, p. 380).  Although most colleges are technically under state management, many colleges, both private and public, benefit from a large endowment made up of donations by alumni and supporters. 

Although opponents may argue that the funding would better be used elsewhere and may drain resources, the need is so great that it outweighs the oppositional argument. In essence, more funding leads to better care, and better care leads to healthier students, campuses, and can eventually save lives. These endowments represent major potential sources of funding for college mental health services. The challenge for mental health advocates is how to direct those funds into the right programs. One approach should be to establish money specifically targeted for the student mental health services that are the most overlooked. As Brousseau, Langill and Pechura (2003) pointed out when discussing the relative lack of mental health funding in non-profit foundations, which often have to make the same type of allocation decisions, the challenge “is not just to fund more in mental health, but to fund more strategically” (Brousseau, Langill and Pechura, 2003, p. 223). Many colleges also fund student council activities and an emphasis should be placed on devoting at least one council committee to concerns for student mental health care.  Once again, the need for the resources and allocation of time and money outweighs the argument that resources would best be applied elsewhere. 


The most important issue which runs through all aspects of the discussion on how to improve college mental health services is the need to de-stigmatize mental illness. This reflects a recent trend in the national mental health system which was aided by recognition in the 1990s that “many mental disorders are now seen to have a component involving brain chemistry and institutions function” (Kemp, 2007). Mental health professionals have been trying to stress that mental disorders, like diabetes or other health problems, have a biological and chemical basis, and hope that this will remove some of the stigmas.

For example, “it has been hypothesized that the reason Latino children tend to report higher rates of somatic symptoms compared to Caucasian youth is the greater acceptability of medical symptoms over psychological symptoms in the Latino culture” (Essau and Ollendick, 2013). This attitude also persists more than mental health experts would like in at least some pockets of American society, including college campuses. The most obvious dilemma this poses for treatment is that young people with mental health issues will go undiagnosed because they are afraid to report their problems, or others will not speak out on their behalf. One extreme example is the suicide of MIT student Elizabeth Shin who had made her harmful intentions known but did not surpass the stigma of her problem to receive appropriate help. 

After one attempt, Shin had told others, including authority figures, she planned on killing herself. It is known that, Her friends, the mental health center, and several MIT administrators all knew of this incident.  Other college officials were aware of prior suicidal threats and attempts.  Later the same night as the impromptu birthday party, Elizabeth told a friend she was going to commit suicide and asked him to erase her computer files; a campus mental health professional and the dorm master decided to let her sleep off the non-lethal mixture of alcohol and Tylenol. (Massie, 2008, p. 629-630) 

Even despite prior announcements of her mental state, Shin did not receive proper care or treatment. The stigma of having the mental illness and the low awareness of her peer group and administrators contributed to her horrible death. 

Students who do not feel like they would be accepted, and hence go undiagnosed, often only worsen to the point where their studies and campus involvement are adversely affected. It is clear that stigmatization is one of the major obstacles to getting proper mental health treatment in colleges. McReynolds, Ward and Singer (2002) give a sense of the type of downward spiral that many patients suffer because of bias and stigma when they note that, “individuals with psychiatric disabilities report a sense of feeling invisible, of not feeling important, or not being taken seriously” (McReynolds, Ward and Singer, 2002). Though the attitude toward mental illness has improved in the United States, and is better than in many parts of the world, there is still a long way to go. 

One writer with mental health issues who blogs for the Huffington Post notes that many elements of popular culture still present mental illness in a way that is stereotypical and doesn’t reflect reality, saying, “Hollywood pretty much always gets it wrong,” referring to its portrayal of mental illness. He does offer a solution, though, which is to be open and honest and supportive, recognizing the need to overcome the fear of any sort of backlash, if there’s any hope for improvement (Pogensky, 2015).   While it is important for mental health care service candidates to have the courage to be open in order to overcome stigma and receive treatment, it is also important for other students, faculty, and administrators to promote an accepting community. They also need to stress that there are confidential places where students can seek assistance, and that counseling centers should be able to direct them to the proper off campus facilities for assistance.

 Administrators and teachers need to educate students that if their mental disorder is severe enough to affect their major life activities, that the students are eligible for “academic accommodations and reasonable modifications in school policies” (Leadership 21, 2008). The Bazelon center also notes that there are many student-run support groups on college campuses. Students should continue to set up and maintain support groups to advocate and educate fellow students about the issues (Leadership 21, 2008).  


 While almost every college campus has one or more counseling centers available to students with mental health care needs or concerns, the recent rising trend in reports of students afflicted with mental disorders means that the service and number of attending counselors is still insufficient. The American Psychological Association reports that, “91 percent of counseling center directors reported that the recent trend toward greater numbers of students with severe psychological problems continues to be true on their campuses,” and that, “76.6 percent of college counseling directors reported reducing the number of visits for non-crisis patients to cope with the increasing number of clients” (APA, 2011). Increasing the number of on-site counselors is vital to ensuring the well-being of suffering students and also to promote the success and well-being of their roommates, teammates, classmates and faculty and staff. 

The treatment of mental illness and the effects of mental disorders work best with cooperation from individuals who are closest to those who suffer. Beside for additional funding, campuses need to hire more mental health care professionals to treat patients with these newly classified disabilities and an expanded education curriculum to help others understand the nature of the problem and what can be done to solve it. The federal government has created grants and crafted legislation to create classroom allowances for people with mental health issues. In other words, there are now disability clauses which assist mentally ill students in becoming successful in college classrooms.   


 As the American Psychological Association makes clear, the need for outstanding mental health services in our country’s colleges is as urgent as ever. It has been mentioned that all members of a college community bear some responsibility in removing stigma from mental disorders. There has been some success on this front. The fact that more and more college students no longer feel embarrassed about mental health issues represents an improvement but it also presents a problem… exposing a lack of resources to deal with an issue that formerly was kept underground. 

While government solutions to funding for resources have been enacted and continue to be advocated for, the need for creative solutions still exist. Given that teenagers and college students communicate so much through online and web-based media, an effort should be made to set up campus-specific online support systems administered by the students themselves. Every student could receive an email or texts at the beginning of each year letting them know that such a community exists, and so the students in need would know that a group of their peers is available to help.


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