Mental Illness: A Hot Topic on College Campuses

Proactive approach from Neumann University and others includes education.

Tragedy should never become too hauntingly familiar. But, sadly, deadly rampages on college campuses are just that. A student takes the lives of others and then typically his own. Later comes the revelation of mental illness—and warning signs that went unaddressed.

While it’s true that campus officials can’t track every student, it’s also true that mental-health professionals on college campuses are facing an enormous need for their services. In a 2013 survey conducted by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, 70 percent of respondents reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems had increased in the past year. And 73 percent of those students experienced a crisis while on campus, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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While several local schools wouldn’t comment on the issue, counseling directors at Eastern University, Harcum College and Neumann University reported increases in three mental illnesses: anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. At those schools, outreach begins as soon as students set foot on campus. During freshman orientation, counseling directors make presentations to students about services available, both on campus and at nearby centers and hospitals. 

Neumann’s Fritz Haas takes it a step further by having every freshman come into his wellness center. They arrive in groups of 15 and spend at least 30 minutes speaking with the director or another counselor. They learn about peer-led support groups and the student wellness educators, who live in dorms and are available for discreet conversations. The center also has two special rooms—one with a Wii and Blu-ray movies, the other for silent meditation or prayer. Haas calls them “enticements”—places where students can find refuge from noisy roommates, chaotic dorms, and the general stress of college life. 

In the three years that Haas has been at Neumann, the number of student appointments at the counseling center has risen from 1,300 to 2,000. Harcum’s and Eastern’s counseling directors also report that more  students are identifying themselves as mentally ill—or now know enough of the signs to think they might be—and are turning to campus professionals for support.

But there are still those who need help and don’t seek it, along with students who stop using their prescribed medications. “Sometimes, it’s an issue of not having access to their psychiatrists at home and not getting those scripts refilled, or insurance no longer covering the medications; I help students resolve both of those situations,” says Kathy Anthony, Harcum’s counseling services director. “But some stop taking medication because they want to find other ways of dealing with their illness—like yoga, exercise, or different kinds of holistic therapies. The success of that depends on the student and how they respond.”

When it comes right down to it, a mentally ill student can’t be forced to take his or her medication. “We treat them as adults, because they are,” says Haas. “If a student has stopped, we urge them to take the medication. If we have the proper releases signed by the student, we can have conversations with other psychiatrists who are prescribing for the student.”

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But that’s really the extent of what counselors can do. HIPAA privacy laws prevent them from notifying parents about their children’s treatment. Law enforcement can be notified only if counselors believe students are in imminent danger of harming themselves or others. 

That in mind, counselors have ramped up efforts to educate everyone on campus about the behaviors exhibited by those in crisis. Neumann has an early-intervention team called Spokes; Villanova’s is called CARE. Harcum, meanwhile, is developing one. Composed of faculty and staff, these teams meet weekly to identify and discuss anyone exhibiting signs of untreated mental illness. They then coordinate resources and devise a plan focused on reaching out to the student. 

The empowerment extends beyond those specialized teams. At Eastern, Villanova, Harcum and Neumann, counselors meet with faculty, coaches and support staff—including cafeteria workers and librarians—to explain the changes in behavior that may spell trouble. Faculty and staff are also given protocols and contact information for counselors. “The goal is to break down the silence that surrounds mental illness and empower people who see students every day to get them the help they need,” says Lisa Hemlick, director of Eastern’s Cushing Center for Counseling & Academic Support. “There is often a feeling of, ‘I don’t want to get involved,’ or, ‘I don’t want to embarrass someone.’ But we’ve seen what tragedies can emerge from that.” 

All that education and outreach seems to be working. “At least once a week, we have a faculty member or coach walk a student over to us at the counseling center,” says Haas. “They do that because they have real concern for the student, and they know that the student wouldn’t come himself.”

If the proactive efforts fail, local campuses do have teams in place to deal with crises—and everyone has witnessed the worst-case scenario unfold on national television. “My first response is that it is overly sad and frightening,” Hemlick says. “From my perspective as a psychologist, I need to be sensitive to the students and support them as they manage their stress. But there are some things that can’t be predicted.”

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