Three Dilemmas Around College Student Mental Health

Students, faculty, and administrators all have difficult choices to make.

Posted Aug 26, 2019

The first week of a semester is usually a hopeful time for me:  Students seem eager, I have a plan for the semester, and I don’t have any grading to do yet.  At the same time, I know that a large percentage of students will experience some mental health issues—anywhere from mild feelings of anxiety and depression to serious mental illness. Let’s take a brief look at three dilemmas, related to mental health issues, faced by three different groups on campus.

A Student Dilemma:  What to Disclose in Applications and Papers

I’ve seen students grapple with this dilemma most often when I work with them as they write their “personal statements” for graduate school applications. Here’s what I say to them:  “A personal statement is not personal. It’s a professional statement... If you’ve learned something from your struggles that translates into skills that are useful to graduate school, great. But you’ll most likely be able to talk about those skills and their application without much detail about what it took to learn them” (Handelsman, VanderStoep, & Landrum, 2011).

Just this week, Alexander C. Kafka (2019) published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that explores similar choices students face when writing their college admissions essays. He reports on a case in which an admissions dean was accused of discriminating against students with mental health issues—a possible violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Students should know that what they write might attract attention they do not want—“it might detract from colleges’ views of an applicant as a potential contributor to the institution.” 

Such essays might also convey the strength, resourcefulness, and determination of students. The stigma associated with mental health problems has been declining, and Kafka cites several people who encourage students “to write about mental-health tribulations.”   

Admissions offices may pay attention to these essays in positive ways.  Kafka cites a long-time admissions officer, Michael Thorp, who says that colleges take note of those essays because they want to assure that “we as an institution can properly support that student.”  

I’ve told my students:  As with any writing you do, you need to know the purpose and the audience for your personal statements or essays.  Kafka cites another expert, Nat Smitobol, who “tells students that there may be essays they need to write for a sense of catharsis and application essays they need to write,” but that these may be two different essays. 

An Administration Dilemma:  How to Respond to Suicidal Students

In another very interesting article, Robin Wilson (2015) tells the stories of several suicidal students at different colleges. She reports that some colleges will ask “students to withdraw if the campus environment is deemed ‘too toxic’ for them.”  Some colleges ask students to prove that they have gotten help, and sometimes apply for readmission, before along them to return.  Part of the motivation for this policy is to help students receive treatment and support that campuses are not equipped to provide. 

Part of the motivation, however, may be to reduce the threat of lawsuits and to save money. “Charles B. Anderson says … insisting that the students withdraw is a step too far. Mr. Anderson, … who has served as associate director of the counseling centers at both Virginia Tech University and William & Mary, says colleges’ concern over their own liability in such instances often trumps concern over students’ mental health.”

Wilson notes several steps colleges are taking instead of asking students to leave:  “Colleges are … hiring more counselors, creating group-therapy sessions to treat more students at once, and arranging for mental-health coordinators who help students manage their own care. A couple of colleges have even installed mental-health kiosks, which look like ATMs and allow students to get a quick screening for depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.”

A Faculty Dilemma:  How to Help Students

As campuses pay more attention to facilitating students’ growth in a variety of ways, instructors have been more attuned to the context in which they teach and factors that influence their students’ experiences.  Pressures on students include (more frequently than in the past) the cost of books, employment, family responsibilities, and mental health concerns.  Most faculty, of course, are not psychotherapists or psychiatrists.  Even those of us with training in therapy cannot act as therapists with students in our classes—serving in the dual role of instructor and therapist raises ethical as well as practical concerns.  All instructors need to struggle with how to show their concern and compassion for their students, provide them with excellent educational experiences, and respond to them when mental-health issues might take center stage.

Jennifer Howard (2015) discussed the support that campuses provide to faculty when students' mental health concerns impinge on their academic performance.  About three-fifths of campuses provide training for faculty to recognize problems and respond to students. Training, however, is usually not mandatory.

Colleges are recognizing the need for good communication among faculty, advisors, counseling centers, deans, residential-life staff, and other members of the campus community.  Many campuses have some version of an “early alert” system, which makes it easy for instructors to notify advisors and other staff members when students begin to fall behind in class or show other signs of distress.  For more serious cases, Howard reports, “almost all colleges now have some kind of rapid-response team that will intervene when there’s an immediate emergency — a campus shooter, a bridge jumper.”

Finally, “some strategies invite faculty members to be active participants in bringing mental-health issues into the open,” via class presentations, class projects, and letting students know that they are there—not as therapists, but to help students get connected to the campus resources they might need.

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Students vary in their needs, and campuses vary in their resources. Thus, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach.  But I am hopeful, as this school year begins, that everyone on campus is becoming more aware of the complex issues involved and moving towards a range of solutions.

References

Handelsman M. M., VanderSteop, S. W., & Landrum, R. E. (2011). Questions (and answers) about elements of the graduate application. Eye on Psi Chi. Retrieved from https://www.psichi.org/page/161EyeFall11fHandels#.XWKccuhKiUk.

Howard, J. (2015, August 31). Faculty on the front lines. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Faculty-on-the-Front-Lines/232735.

Kafka, A. C. (2019, August 22). A college applicant writes about mental-health challenges. Should admissions red-flag that file? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/A-College-Applicant-Writes/246994?cid=wsinglestory

Wilson, Robin (2015, August 31). An Epidemic of anguish: Overwhelmed by demand for mental-health care, colleges face conflicts in choosing how to respond. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/An-Epidemic-of-Anguish/232721?cid=rclink.