See also “People Who Care“
Virginia Tech. The Colorado movie-theater shooting. In the wake of these and other tragedies have come suspicions or revelations that the college students wielding the guns were mentally ill—and, worse yet, went untreated.
As campuses nationwide work to devise better ways to identify and help troubled teens and young adults, West Chester University is leading the way. In 2011, WCU began a screening program created by nurse practitioner Ann Rizer in conjunction with the National College Depression Partnership and the school’s counseling and wellness centers. With 33 years of experience at health centers on college campuses throughout the country, Rizer saw a growing need for the screenings. “Staff members sensed that they were seeing students who were depressed, but we had no way to assess them,” she says. “We wanted to make sure we were using something evidence-based to screen them and get them the help they need. We felt that too many were slipping through the cracks.”
Kady Maniscalco knows this firsthand. A high school friend committed suicide during her freshman year of college. “We think, in retrospect, that she’d been suffering from depression,” says the West Chester University senior. “No one ever guessed.”
Maniscalco is president of the West Chester chapter of Active Minds, a national organization that generates awareness and dialogue about mental illness among college students. Founded in 2001 at the University of Pennsylvania, Active Minds now has 356 chapters in the United States and Canada, including those at Bryn Mawr College, Cabrini College and St. Joseph’s University. “What we’re talking about is not the awareness that depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia exist, because we already know that,” Maniscalco says. “The awareness we want to bring is that you or one of your friends might have one of those illnesses—and here’s what to do about it.”
A crucial part of the mission of Active Minds and other like-minded organizations is providing resources for those with undiagnosed mental illness in an age group at particular risk. For them, the stresses of college life—academic anxiety, peer pressure, romantic relationships, altered sleeping and eating patterns, alcohol consumption, drug use, the absence of parental support—can create a toxic brew. Many symptoms may be attributed to the general fatigue and nerves most students experience. The key is finding the red flags. “These national cases that link mental illness to violence are not a realistic picture of how the vast majority of students can successfully [cope] once they get help,” says Maniscalco.
Maniscalco’s freshman-year roommate had bipolar disorder, and she’s witnessed what effective treatment can do. “She’d been diagnosed in high school and was on medication,” Maniscalco says. “She would still have highs and lows, but the fact that she knew why and what to do about it empowered her to manage her illness. She was afraid to tell me that she was bipolar, because there’s a stigma about being ‘crazy.’ But what I saw was that, with support, people with mental illness can be productive and successful.”
This is the outcome Rizer wants for all WCU’s at-risk students. In the 2011-12 academic year, 2,922 students were screened with the new questionnaires. Of those, 99 were identified with a level of depression severe enough to prompt a referral to the university’s counseling and psychological services department. The majority of those 99 students were diagnosed as moderately depressed or even higher. “That’s 99 students who really needed help and weren’t getting it,” says Rizer. “The questionnaires ask a total of 11 questions. So if we’re successfully screening by asking just 11 questions, think of what more we can do to help other students.”
And help doesn’t end with a referral. “I follow up with students to make sure they keep their appointments and get their medications if they need them,” Rizer says. “One of the most debilitating parts of depression is that it’s an invisible, internal suffering. Sometimes, a great deal of difference can be made by someone coming along and saying, ‘I care what happens to you. How can I help?’”
Help from professionals is one thing, but help from peers is another. “When you’re at college, your friends are your family, so we’re the ones who should notice changes in behavior that might signal a problem,” says Maniscalco. “But that’s not a simple thing. We’re teenagers and young adults. We don’t often have the life experience to know which behaviors are warning signs for what problems.”
Active Minds’ on-campus events include PostSecret, where students write their innermost thoughts on pieces of paper and post them anonymously to a tree in WCU’s Quadrangle. “We got a huge response, and some notes were heart-wrenching to read,” Maniscalco says. “A few said, ‘I think I’m bipolar,’ ‘I’m gay and can’t tell anyone,’ and ‘I want to hurt myself.’ The goal is to get these students to admit it, because maybe they can then talk to someone. We have Active Minds members standing there at the tree with literature and information on how to get help.”
At the annual “Send Silence Packing” event, backpacks are arranged on campus to represent the 1,100 college students who commit suicide every year. The display is surrounded by signs with phone numbers for students in crisis.
Maniscalco placed a message inside the backpack created for her high school friend. “I don’t want to tell you what it said because that’s private,” she says. “But my hope for that message—and every message we send—is that it reaches people suffering from mental illness. If someone takes one step toward getting help, we’ll take 1,000 steps to getting them that help.”
Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The Jed Foundation
Protecting the emotional and mental health of college students.
National Alliance on Mental Illness
NAMI’s Live A Better Life Through Community
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance