March 6, 2017
Posted in: Parenting Concerns
This is the second blog post in a two-part series on college mental health in the United States. The first post focused on suicide prevention. The focus of this second post is general college mental health.
In our first blog on college mental health, we began saying that college can be the best time of life.
For many of us adults, college was a time of liberation, and new opportunities for work, study and play. For learning new things – for growing up. And today, there are many more options for our students than even before – certainly more than were available to previous generations.
But as I personally think back on those idyllic days of freedom and autonomy – love, laughter, friends, and really feeling independent – I can’t help but remember the “near misses.”
We all had close calls, right? Think back on your days in college. Remember the times you saw your friend black out; or when you were nearly involved in a serious car accident; or ended up in some remote, and, in retrospect, dangerous part of town and had no idea how to get back to campus?
Maybe this is why we worry about our kids in college.
But frankly, there are other reasons to worry. It’s one thing to worry about isolated events. It’s another for us to appreciate that college is a very risky time for our kids. And what we don’t often think about is the incredible crisis of mental illness and emotional turmoil that most of our college students endure.
We are facing a true mental health crisis on our campuses today.
Let’s look at some very scary facts about mental health on our campuses:
Mental health issues are increasingly prevalent among college students:
To make matters worse:
Obviously, something needs to be done right away.
Before we consider solutions, let’s think about possible triggers for mental health crises and barriers for getting help when it’s clearly needed.
Some of the vulnerabilities in college students include a pre-existing or new-onset of a psychiatric disorder or recognition of a previously undiagnosed learning disability. About 50% of psychiatric disorders begin by age 14 and over 75% arise by age 25. Many students have issues with inability to manage stress and feelings of exhaustion. Others struggle with overwhelming feelings of anxiety, depression, homesickness and loneliness. Most college students have intense experiences in relationships and just cannot navigate those waters.
We also need to appreciate that while as a society we treat 18 year olds as adults, the brain does not fully mature until about age 26. Between adolescence and the mid-twenties, the brain is largely driven by emotion. The neurological pathways between the “lower” emotional, pleasure-seeking and impulsive centers and the “higher” cortical regions that consider alternative solutions, consequences of actions, and utilize logic and reasoning to offset emotional pressures are still in process of formation. Technically the adult architecture of the brain, that is, the myelination of the neurons, is not yet fully established. So, youth still tend to be ruled by feeling, impulse, and pleasure seeking – which really complicates decision making and behavior in highly charged situations – situations that are very common in college.
In short, college students are not ready to function fully independently as adults. As someone who in college “never trusted anyone over 30” (our mantra) – this is not easy for me to admit or even say now. But it is true!
Now, what are the barriers to seeking help? For students and for parents, I think they fall in three categories: Stigma, Deficient Services, and Lack of Information.
Mental health problems are highly stigmatized universally. College students may worry about a “black mark” on their academic record. They also worry that a psychiatric disorder will be judged negatively by peers or faculty. And finally, there is a real lack of sound information about the nature, course, and treatment of psychiatric disorders. For all these reasons far too few seek help.
Colleges, as noted above, have very limited clinical services and mental health personnel. There is often inadequate means of providing evaluations or therapy. Insurance limitations are very common, and many student health plans are woefully thin in providing mental health care. Most students and parents have minimal knowledge about how and where to get help, such as how to get referrals on or off campus. Many students don’t even know where to find counseling or psychiatric emergency services on campus, or if they are eligible for care.
While it might seem that this is an insurmountable problem and there are real economic, and campus-wide bureaucratic and logistical obstacles unique to every college campus, most students, parents, faculty and college administrators really do want to see things change. The big question is how we proceed.
Here are some guidelines for making positive changes on our campuses:
If these recommendations are initiated and promoted by colleges, there is no doubt that we will effect a dramatic cultural change on campus – a culture that welcomes open dialogue about the ways in which mental health and wellbeing may be compromised and supports seeking help and guidance.
And this kind of transformation is likely to save lives. Isn’t this what we all want?
For additional information please see:
Examples of college webpages:
Counseling & Psychological Services – University of Pennsylvania
Mental Health and Well-Being – Cornell University