Dr. Larry J. Walker shares the importance of colleges and universities establishing Mental Health Check-In policies for new and returning college students.
Mental health is a taboo subject that college students rarely discuss because of stereotypes and misconceptions. Far too often, people associate mental illness with combative, dangerous behaviors that place the campus community in danger. As a result, individuals combating mental illness sometimes feel isolated because friends or family members don’t understand their experiences. Similar to their classmates, students struggling with mental illness have to balance academic requirements, family and peer relationships in a chaotic campus environment. In spite of the obstacles thousands of college students with a mental illness are thriving on college campuses throughout the nation. It’s time that students with mental illness come out of the shadows. According to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) millions of Americans struggle with mental health each year. It’s vital that undergraduate, graduate and professional students have access to therapeutic support services including peer and mentorship programs.
Ensuring students have enough socio-emotional support during midterms, finals and stressful life events are important. This should include support from residence life staff including resident advisors (RA), dormitory directors for on campus students and monitors, auxiliary staff for off campus students. My experience as a RA taught me that students’ from a variety of backgrounds struggle with outcomes including mental illness. Minority and under-served students are particularly at risk. There were occasions when I had to counsel students struggling with prior or recent events that impacted their ability to complete classwork and develop secure relationships with peers. Frequently students combating mental illness go unnoticed because they aren’t sure if they can confide to friends or family members that they are struggling to cope. Talking to someone is important. There were periods as an undergraduate and graduate student I felt boxed in.
Fortunately because of the feedback from family and/or friends I found a way to thrive. However, it is important to understand that some students have to overcome a plethora of obstacles throughout their undergraduate, graduate and professional career. For example, a mental health survey of college students conducted by NAMI determined that 27% of the respondents were diagnosed with depression, 24% bipolar disorder and 11% anxiety. The majority of post-secondary institutions throughout the United States are not equipped to identify and counsel students in distress. For this reason, student to student, student to faculty and student to staff relationships are key. We have to intervene when students are in need of support.
Colleges and universities should develop a Mental Health Check In policy to emphasize the importance of physical and mental wellness. Establishing policies and programs for new and returning students could change the campus culture. Some post-secondary institutions are doing an excellent job providing comprehensive mental health services. Unfortunately suicides continue to occur on or off college campuses that impact families, friends and the campus community. Ensuring students don’t feel isolated and vulnerable should include a comprehensive campus wide initiative designed to meet student needs. Access to a mental health practitioner could prevent student’s from being placed on academic probation or dropping out of school. Far too often, counseling centers are overwhelmed because of the growing need. For this reason, post-secondary institutions should consider the following:
- Develop a peer-to-peer program– Post-secondary institutions could develop a pilot program that trains student leaders to counsel classmates. Students may not feel comfortable meeting with a counselor or RA. The program would provide an alternative for students hesitant to seek support.
- Create a campus wide check in program- Students are stressed because they have to balance academic and social commitments. Developing a campaign that encourages students, faculty and staff to check in on each other throughout the year could increase self-help behaviors.
- Destigmatize mental health- Frequently students don’t ask for help because they fear stereotypes and rejection from peers. Educating the campus community should include initiatives that highlight success stories. Millions of Americans live normal lives despite being diagnosed with a mental illness.
Hopefully administrators, advocates, faculty and students will join together to provide critical support for those in need. Mental illness doesn’t represent the end of a journey. Students can continue to be productive by completing assignments and developing relationships with peers but post-secondary institutions have to treat individuals diagnosed with a mental illness with respect and provide comprehensive services. We have to dismantle misconceptions about mental illness and work together to ensure students are successful.
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