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Building a Community of Care: Mental Health Is Everyone’s Business

October 30, 2019 Michael J. Stebleton

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

Mental health represents one of the most pressing issues facing higher education. Indeed, college student mental health has been a critical issue for higher education for over two decades. Kadison and DiGeronimo’s (2004) groundbreaking book, College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do about It, served as an important alert for higher education professionals to pay greater attention to students’ mental health concerns. 

Unfortunately, despite over a decade of clarion calls about the need to address this challenge, students continue to experience mental health challenges and mental illness at increasingly high rates—and of increasing severity. The mental health epidemic remains a serious problem—and students, faculty, staff, and administrators are still overwhelmed. Furthermore, institutions are beginning to understand that faculty and staff may also experience mental health challenges more frequently than in the past. 

Recent Statistics

Recent statistics demonstrate the severity of varied mental health concerns that affect college students.  According to current data from NCHA II (spring 2019), within the past 12 months, undergraduate students in the United States responded that:

-46.2% felt so depressed it was difficult to function

-66.4% experienced overwhelming anxiety

-14.4% seriously considered suicide, up from 12.7% in the fall of 2018

-67.4% felt very lonely

Moreover, mental health issues disproportionally affect some marginalized populations such as students of color, immigrants, LGBTI students, and/or first-generation students, many who already encounter contextual and institutional barriers (e.g., racism).

Qualitative Studes

Qualitative studies that explore student mental health experiences, including the work of my own team, support the survey data that indicates this complex problem is getting worse, not better.  Clear epidemiological evidence as to the cause of this epidemic remain elusive, but studies continue to indicate correlations between various, interacting sociocultural factors.

Examples include a hyper-competitive academic environment, microaggressions, socio-political divisions, and excessive social media use. Many of us who work directly with students as faculty, staff, and/or student affairs practitioners know students who cope with some of these issues. While concern for students’ wellbeing is paramount, we must also consider the impacts of mental health challenges on students’ academics and their learning. In the NCHA II survey, 52.7% of students reported that academics had been traumatic, or very difficult to handle. 

Not Only Students

Students are not the only population within higher education who face these challenges.  Evidence suggests that higher education professionals struggle with their own mental health—this overlooked area merits further attention and care.  At the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year, many of us were struck by the tragic news of a leader in counseling and mental health services. 

Gregory Eells, director of Counseling and Psychological Service at the University of Pennsylvania, died by suicide.  I did not know Dr. Eells personally; however, I am familiar with his work and leadership.  Many of us were left questioning how this could happen to an expert on college student mental health and suicide. While Eells’s death leaves us with more questions than answers, one thing is clear: no one is immune from the impact of mental health challenges, and we are all responsible for creating a culture of care for students, and each other.

A Community of Care

Educators and other “helpers” in higher education contexts need supporters. After Eells’s death, the editorial board of Daily Pennsylvanian contributed a column that served as a reminder about taking care of fellow colleagues.Several lines struck me: “as our campus comes together to process and to grieve, we must remember that it’s okay to lean on one another. We must check in with each other, especially with those whom we may often overlook: our leaders, our mentors, and our support systems.”  Often, we may assume that leaders and caregivers are invincible and capable of overcoming their own problems. 

How can we address the growing mental health concerns of students and higher education professionals?  To be honest, I am reluctant to offer a tidy list of well-acknowledged strategies (e.g., be aware of referral sources on campus).  Instead, I share one institutional effort that holds potential for creating a campus community of care.

A Campus-Wide Initiative

A community of care—where individuals discuss mental health issues openly and without stigma—merits attention and further development.  Senior leaders need to assume key roles. For example, I am proud to say that the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities recently installed Joan T.A. Gabel as the 17th (and first woman) president of the university.  As part of her initial priorities, Dr. Gabel aims to make mental health awareness and mental illness prevention a campus-wide initiative.  To demonstrate this commitment, inauguration activities included an event titled, “Student Mental Health from the Lens of Prevention and Resilience” featuring students, faculty, and clinicians. 

The initiative at the University of Minnesota-Twin serves as one example. It represents a start to an ongoing conversation, but not the end. More discussions need to occur regularly across college campuses if we are to stem the rising rates of mental health challenges, mental illness, and suicide. 

Everybody's Business

Keeling (2014) discussed creating an ethic of care for students, and we need to extend that ethic of care and culture to the larger university and college-wide communities. Mental health needs to become everybody’s business; only then will we see significant positive shifts.

Acknowledgement:  The author would like to thank colleague Lisa Kaler for her thoughtful contributions to this column.

References

American College Health Association (2019). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Undergraduate Student Executive Summary Spring 2019. Silver Spring, MD: American College Health Association.

Kadison, R., & DiGeronimo, T.F. (2004). College of the overwhelmed: The campus mental health crisis and what to do about it. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Keeling, R. P. (2014). An ethic of care in higher education: Well-being and learning. Journal of College and Character, 15(3), 141–148. http://doi.org/10.1515/jcc-2014-0018

The Daily Pennsylvanian Editorial Board (2019, September 11). In the wake of Gregory Eells’   tragic death, remember helpers need help too.  The Daily Pennsylvanian. Retrieved from: https://www.thedp.com/article/2019/09/mental-illness-gregory-eells-cornell-anxiety-depression-upenn-philadelphia


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