Mental Health Stigma on College Campuses

A typical college experience comes with plenty of challenges, such as tricky roommates, finding tasty food in the cafeteria, waking up for class, or finding a reliable study buddy. The challenges don’t end there – many situations are new ones for students and therefore difficult in their own right, but being far from home, depending on oneself, and building a life (all while constantly planning for and thinking about the future) makes it all even harder. It’s no wonder college is a hotbed for mental health issues for students. Thankfully, most colleges are rising to the challenge in meeting their students’ health needs. For students whose colleges are lacking support, keep reading to learn about other ways to address your needs.

Since so many experiences in college are firsts, people may experience mental health triggers that they didn’t even know they had. This is certainly true for me; I was surprised to find that working at a dream internship after sophomore year would give me so much anxiety. More importantly, I didn’t know what that anxiety was, because no one had ever told me. I had always thought that anxiety was just “stress,” but stress is only the tip of the anxiety iceberg. I began having heart palpitations, dizziness, and panic attacks, and I didn’t even know what the panic attacks, or any of these symptoms, were. Honestly, I thought I was dying. That was making all the anxiety even worse. This was all so new to me and I just had no idea what it was until telling my cousin about it, and she said these were all symptoms of anxiety that she also experiences. Her telling me this was a turning point for me, gave a name to what was happening, and let me start the process of healing.

I wish that I had known about anxiety sooner; that in all four days of my college orientation, my psychology courses, the posters that caught my eye in school buildings and library bathroom stalls, or any of my numerous mentors and counselors, had addressed mental health. And perhaps they did, and I wasn’t there that day, or I wasn’t paying attention. But there’s no question that mental health is an issue that affects almost every college student, and in my situation, was certainly under-discussed. Anxiety is the top mental health concern on campuses in a poll by USA Today, followed by depression, stress, family, and school. (Of course, these concerns can be linked.)

According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, “institutional enrollment grew by 5.6% between 2009 and 2015, while the number of students seeking services increased by 29.6%, and the number of attended appointments by 38.4%. And the 2015-2016 report from CCMH reveals that, among students seeking counseling, mental health as a reason for seeking help has steadily climbed between 2010 and 2016. Medication use, hospitalizations and suicide attempts have also increased.” CCMH explains that one reason for the increase in counseling demand is due to the fact that students who may have previously been unable to attend school because of their mental health issues are now able to receive treatment and attend college, which is certainly positive. Many students are diagnosed before even coming to college, while many others do not develop mental health issues until becoming a college student. That’s why it’s so important that colleges are proactive about helping their students attain mental health treatment, especially colleges whose campuses are large and self-contained, because students may not have any other way of accessing care.

While stigma around mental health care has arguably decreased in recent years, and treatment has become normalized, going from frequently underutilized to very utilized, with waiting lists and busy waiting rooms, stigma does still remain. This is partly due to the taboo legacy of mental health, and the lack of resources schools have to tackle the issue. To treat the influx of students seeking help, schools have to increase the budget to help them. Not every school has the ability to appropriately fund this issue. Public schools in particular may have issues budgeting in mental health services, as their funding is often constrained by the state. Additionally, some schools charge students to use their services, and depending on the cost, students may be prohibited from accessing treatment. For example, according to Maggie Bertram, Associate Director of Training and Education at Active Minds, a national mental health advocacy organization, Georgetown University used to charge $85 for one counseling session for its students. They have since changed the policy, but that was a huge barrier for students who could not afford the cost and/or did not want to involve their parents. This likely remains an issue at schools around the country.

For students who cannot access treatment at their college, there are free telephone hotlines and low cost services online, or in their community, which may be able to help them. For example, mentalhealth.gov, mentalhelp.org, RTOR.org, and healthyplace.com are some sites worth looking into for someone seeking help. NAMI.org will answer questions about mental health treatment and is a particularly renowned mental health organization. If there is no counselor available at school or if you are on a wait-list, it may be helpful to talk to a trusted friend or family member about what’s going on and what you’re feeling, though you should probably still seek professional treatment. It also may be helpful to write in a journal, go for a walk, or just take an intentional and mindful break from school work to help sort things out in addition to obtaining professional care. Another excellent resource if there is a lack of care available on your campus is seeking appointments through telehealth. This is an easy and convenient way to see a mental health provider from the comfort of your dorm room. You can learn more at www.Inpathy.com.

Stigma for anything is a product of the culture it lives in, and stigma around mental health is no different. It is up to individual schools and society as a whole to nurture a stigma free culture, which involves everyone. Developing a stigma free college campus means educating the populace, so that students do not develop anxiety and (like me) have no idea what it is or how to get help for it. It also means educating the parents, the professors, the RAs— helping them identify mental health issues and needs in their students and directing them to resources for help. It’s necessary to build a strong, efficient treatment system at the school, and to increase consciousness to help students get there when they need it.

If you are interested in meeting with a behavioral health care provider to support wellness and healthy thinking, try online videoconferencing through Inpathy. Use the coupon code: BulletinReader (caps sensitive) when you are paying for your first session to get $50 off.

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