In recent headlines, there have been an increasing number of news stories and opinion pieces looking at what’s been called a college mental health crisis by some and an epidemic of mental illness on campus by others. Whatever you call it, there is certainly a problem with college students and young adults getting adequate access to appropriate mental health care resources. A study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine noted an increasing number (2.6%) of mental health-related ED visits made by young adults (19-25). This study suggests that a lack of proper mental health resources is to blame for this upswing. Not knowing where to go for mental health related concerns, young people are going to the emergency room with greater frequency. There are also more news and media sources paying attention and drawing important conclusions about the high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression facing young adults today. This increase in the prevalence of mental health conditions is impacting young people during college years and causing problems that have longer lasting effects, leading to an increasing number of dropouts among those suffering from untreated mental health issues.
In 2012, The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) compiled a survey of called College Students Speak: A Survey Report on Mental Health. This report looked at the web-based survey responses of 765 young adults who were enrolled in college or had been in the last 5 years who were also diagnosed with a mental health conditions. Important recent news has drawn attention to the dramatic increase in students reporting mental health issues on college campuses across the U.S., and this survey took a deeper look at the effects. The report demonstrated that a disheartening byproduct of this lack of appropriate mental health resources for so many young adults is a the inability to handle life’s responsibilities and the subsequent rise in college dropout rates among people ages 16-24. In fact, 64% of the respondents in the NAMI survey were no longer in school, and of those, an overwhelming majority noted that mental health related issues were the cause of this non-attendance. Throughout their lifetimes, women are two times more likely to be depressed making the likelihood that women will experience college dropout higher.
This is alarming news as competition for jobs becomes more intense and the lack of well-paying, long-term positions means that millennials entering the job market need to be more broadly skilled and flexible than any group entering the market in recent history. An education is not the most important thing, but it is an undeniable asset in a tough market, and the results of recent studies demonstrate that those with mental health issues are starting their adult lives and careers at a disadvantage, with higher dropout rates that people who don’t contend with such issues. Reasons for dropouts range from loss of scholarship funds because of mental health leave to inability to resume studies because of chronic mental health conditions. Leaving school may present other concerns for the student. First, they may lose access to the mental health services the university provided. They may also lose the structure of life that university life provided.
It is clear that if making resources available is the most critical factor for struggling students, raising awareness about these resources is a close second in terms of importance. But how best to achieve all these ends?
Removing barriers to support
In the NAMI Survey, responders note the types of resources that might have helped them stay in school. Campus mental health services, housing, and a number of other accommodations were cited as items that could help support students struggling with mental health issues regain equilibrium and stay in school.
Investing in mental health services on campus, is clearly a wise choice for universities and colleges, as I have noted in previous articles on this subject. In addition, when colleges partner with local providers and spread the word to students about resources using social media, outreach programs, handouts in health centers, and the school’s website to help promote increased access to services, everyone wins. Many students have reported not being aware of services in place to help them, so getting the word out, is vital. Linking students to services, whether they are financial, medical, or other support services can truly change the course of their futures.
Many students are not aware that mental health issues can be considered disabilities and that they may be able to get access to mental health providers and additional accommodations through the Disability Resource Center (DRC). Reaching out to students who are struggling can mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out. Some other critical accommodations for students facing mental health issues are:
Making exceptions and excusing absences for mental health treatment
Extensions for homework assignments and papers
Allowing students to withdraw from courses without penalties
Medical leaves for students with mental health conditions
Helping students with the paperwork necessary to get help
Working to stamp out stigma associated with mental health issues
We are living in times of tremendous change. Giving students all the help we can to help them succeed is more important than it ever has been as the career certainties that older generations relied upon evaporate, making way for new ways of making a living and navigating society.
Dr. Eileen Wynne