Mental Health Issues for Higher Ed: What you need to know

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Each year, the needs of students coming to campus change in various ways. However, the thing we have been able to count on for more than 20 years, is that the need for mental health services is increasing. According to the National College Health Assessment (NCHA)from Spring 2015, in the previous twelve months students reported the following mental health issues:

  • 85.6%  of students reported feeling overwhelmed
  • 58.8% felt very lonely
  • 63.9% felt very sad
  • 56.9% felt overwhelming anxiety
  • 8.9% seriously considered suicide
  • 1.4% attempted suicide
  • 6.3% intentionally cut, burned, bruised, or otherwise harmed themselves

Approximately 24.2% of students  reported having seen a mental health professional. Among the top diagnoses were anxiety (15.8%), depression (13.1%), and panic attacks (7.4%). Almost completely across the board, reports of mental health issues have gone up from percentages gathered in the Spring 2010 NCHA survey.

How do we help students with mental health issues?

The International Association of Counseling Services, Inc. (IACS) suggests that college and university campuses have at least one counselor or psychologist for every 1000-1500 enrolled students.  Smaller ratios, however, are always better,  especially with increased demand. Ratios beyond this will result in increased wait lists, increased liability, decreased the ability to assist those with more persistent and pervasive issues, and decreased individualized student support. So, how do we as student affairs professionals help these students with their mental health issues?   I’m assuming that many of those students that the NCHA reported weren't treated, didn’t seek counseling at all. Kimberly Morrow, LCSW, in her article “What to do When You Can’t Afford Therapy” says that the two main reasons people don’t seek out a counselor are shame and cost, (and, a common third shame because of an inability to afford).  One of the great things about college is that when our schools offer counseling, it’s cheap—if not free—for students.  However, if a student hasn’t thought about therapy, it’s possible that they don’t know that visiting the campus counselor won’t put a dent in their pockets.

How do we know we need to refer a student to counseling?

According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta signs to look out for are:

  1. Difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than usual.
  2. Changes in appetite.
  3. Withdrawal from social interaction.
  4. Loss of interest in things that used to be pleasurable.
  5. Lack of energy, difficulty concentrating or remembering things.
  6. Feeling worthless and helpless.

Things like this are probably what are putting your antennae up.  Once you notice, it might be a good time to start asking probing questions:

  • How long has this been going on?  
  • How much do you sleep at night?  
  • How has class been going?

And, if need be, the tough ones:

  • Have you thought about killing yourself?
  • Have you hurt yourself?

It may seem like it escalates quickly, but if you suspect that a student is struggling with mental health issues, you need to ask.  The Mayo Clinic offers this guide with great questions that can help you talk with someone about suicidality, and what to do if a student answers yes to those questions.  Your school will also have a protocol to follow.

How do we talk to students about their mental health?

If a person isn’t thinking about suicide but is expressing anxiety, depression, or feeling blue—talk with them. Getting to know our students is key, and listening to what’s happening in their lives is necessary for helping them through.  If a student is utilizing you as a counselor or is expressing things out of your depth, it’s okay—and encouraged—to refer them. At this point, it’s really good to bring out questions such as: ‘did you know we have a counselor on campus?’ and ‘what do you think about chatting with them?’  Talking the student through their fears in talking with a counselor will  help to ease any anxiety and shame they may have been feeling. Be okay with resistance.  Depending on a person’s family system or their cultural background, counseling may also be viewed as an unacceptable way of coping.  If you think this is the case, check out your resources and talk about either alternative ways to help your student or find someone they would be willing to chat with.  Speaking with the counseling office or your multi-cultural center directors are good starting points. At the end of the day, we care about our students and want what’s best for them.  Knowing that the collective state of their mental health is becoming more of an issue, it’s a great time to start reading up on articles about mental health in college.  The more we are aware, the better we can help. Along with the links in this article, check out the below articles and resources for more information. The JED FoundationThe College Student Mental Health Crisis, by Gregg Henriques, Ph.D.

The Top Mental Health Challenges Facing StudentsActive Minds

Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection, by Julie Scelfo ---


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