Last January, a friend and I sat at a coffee shop on campus. She set aside her latte, and looked down at the table.
“I just can’t do it anymore,” she told me. “There’s just no place for someone like me at a school like this.”
Someone like me. A year later, I still can’t get those three words out of my head. My friend, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during her freshman year, struggled to balance the manic phases and midterms, the mood swings and the final papers. And just like thousands of other students facing mental illness, she sought relief through escape — dropping out of college just a few credits short of a degree.
In the weeks following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the killing of firefighters in Webster, N.Y. and the far-too-long laundry list of recent mass murders, the term “mental illness” has been tossed around cable news networks. Which shooter has which disease? How do we treat these killers — and what exactly are we treating them for? To be clear, the state of mental health in the U.S. is important, and discussion is beyond necessary. But when talk turns from treatment to speculating a killer’s motive, you have to wonder — is this the destigmatization that mental disorders need?
Talking about mental health services as a means of preventing mass murders ignores less obvious, less in-your-face types of disorders. Of course, treating the future Adam Lanzas or Seung-Hui Chos is absolutely imperative, but psychiatry reaches far beyond crime prevention. If we’re really interested in protecting and improving the psychological condition of Americans, we’ve got to look at all forms of disorders, including those that may seem benign.
Take, for instance, my friend dealing with a disorder on campus. She’s not alone — more than one-fifth of college students are diagnosed with mental disorders, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. Yet the average university counseling center sees only about 10% of the student body each year, as reported by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) in 2011. Still, this number reflects an increase in students taking advantage of these services over the past decade. Translation? We’re starting to reduce stigmas against mental health in student life. But we still have far to go.
According to a 2012 survey from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 62% of students with mental health problems who withdraw from college decide to leave because of those problems. “That percentage is a sign that we’re not doing a very good job for some students,” said Darcy Guttadaro, the director of the Child and Adolescent Action Center at NAMI, in Inside Higher Ed. “It’s no longer OK for schools to just not address [mental health] issues.”
Guttadaro is right. With national attention focused on mental health and the impacts of ignoring disorders, it’s time we start paying attention to treating students. For many students, college is the first time they leave home, the first time they fail an exam and the first time they aren’t at the top of their class. Getting guidance during this period can play an instrumental role in reorienting students, and getting them to stay in the classroom — for good. Yet, as demand for these services rise, many college campuses see a decrease in funding for counseling. More than 75% of university counseling directors reported that they’ve had to cut the visiting hours for non-emergency students in an effort to make best of an ever-shrinking budget. Limiting available counseling services to students who might struggle without physically harming themselves or someone else is a mistake, and a dangerous one at that.
“We’re going to have to work on making access to mental health care as easy as getting a gun,” President Obama said in a press conference after the shootings in Newtown, Conn. For millions of young adults, that process needs to begin on campus.
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