Addressing student’s mental health needs

Nineteen year-old Nicole had never had any prior symptoms of mental illness when she announced to her parents that she “felt there was too much going on in [her] head.”  Nicole’s mom shrugged off her daughter’s comment as that of a normal first semester college student feeling “overwhelmed” by finals week. 

Within the week, however, it became apparent that there was something more serious going on when Nicole began acting strangely, having difficulty following normal conversation, and, eventually, was found sitting alone in a dark classroom on her campus. A trip to the ER confirmed that Nicole was experiencing a psychotic break and needed hospitalization.

Nicole’s story is not unlike that of many students on college campuses.  Harvard University’s Richard Kadison wrote in his book, “College of the Overwhelmed,” that if your child is in college, the chances are almost 1 in 2 that they will become depressed to the point of being unable to function, 1 in 2 that they will have regular episodes of binge drinking, and 1 in 10 that they will seriously consider suicide.

Estimates about the prevalence of mental health diagnosis, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (2012), are one in four for students. 

“Psychology Today” (February 2014) wrote that there is a mental health crisis today facing America’s college students, with 95 percent of colleges indicating it is a growing concern.

The rise in the incidence of students with severe mental health issues (ex: schizophrenia, major depression) as well as non-serious mental illness diagnosis (ex: anxiety, adjustment disorders) can be attributed to several factors including the overall improvement in mental health treatment that has allowed those to attend who previously could not. 

The age of the traditional college student is also a common age of onset for illnesses such as schizophrenia.  Further, the stress associated with transitioning into adulthood and life style behaviors that may accompany that change (ex: substance use, social pressures and lack of sleep) can contribute to mental health problems.

Statistics from a 2012 survey conducted by the NAMI revealed that 64 percent of college drop outs did so due to a mental health reason; that percentage is staggering when considering the financial loss in earnings, student aid and tax revenues as well as the personal loss for individuals when students are unable to reach their goals. 

There is pressure on schools to provide the services and supports necessary for retention, yet many colleges, especially publically funded schools, are facing tight budgets. 

FM is working diligently to address the needs of these students through accommodations through their disability services, campus counselors, support groups and special grants.  The college continues to find new ways to combat the mental health crisis as well as the stigma that can prevent students from seeking help. FM is part of the Mental Health Associations promotion team to increase awareness of mental health issues and decrease the stigma association with them. 

This year, the group will be bringing poet laureate Wali Shah, one of Canada’s top 20 under 20, to perform his spoken word and discuss his own issues with anxiety. FM has also partnered with St. Mary’s Hospital to provide a full-time counselor on campus with wonderful success.

(There will be more on this collaboration between St. Mary’s and FM in next week’s article.)

Robin DeVito is FM’s coordinator of accessibility services.

By Patricia Older

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