Let’s Talk about College Angst: Challenging Mental Health Disparities and Other Conditions in University Students
Written By Maria Gutierrez
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people ages 15-34. I know this is a shocking fact to lead with, but it’s a real problem, and it deserves to be talked about. Here, we aim to tackle questions like: ‘How did we get to this point?’ and ‘how do we work to resolve this’? To address these questions, we must start with awareness and education on the topic.
We are living in a time with one of the highest life expectancy rates, yet simultaneously facing a rapid decline in mental health status. So, how did we get to this point? There is no single, agreed-upon list of risk factors for mental illness; however, according to the Suicide Prevention and Resource Center (2014), the most frequent school and community risk factors discussed in research are:
- Limited access to effective care for health, mental health, or substance abuse disorders
- Stigma associated with seeking care
- Negative social and emotional environment, including negative attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and interactions of staff and students
- Exposure to stigma and discrimination against students based on sexual orientation, gender identity, race and ethnicity, disability, or physical characteristics (such as being overweight)
- Exposure to media normalizing or glamorizing suicide
I asked Adrian Jimenez, a fourth-year Finance major, his opinion on the topic. He has taken advantage of University of Florida resources, such as the Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC), since his freshman year. Although he is not battling with depression or suicidal thoughts, he has his own set of obstacles to overcome. Adrian was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at a young age and, therefore, actively utilizes campus wellness resources. He openly disclosed to me that his experience with these groups on campus has generally been satisfactory. However, he believes there is a substantial shortage of providers who specialize specifically in mental health illnesses. The closest clinic specializing in patients with Asperger’s is a children’s clinic relatively far from campus and his lack of transportation to this location makes Adrian’s situation extremely difficult.
I met Adrian at Pascal’s Coffeehouse in Gainesville, a popular location where many university students meet up to study or lounge between classes. We sat on the second floor, balancing our coffees on a wobbly table, and chatted about his experiences with the University’s mental health resources. I thanked him for his efforts to meet me between classes; but honestly, what I really cherished was his honesty and transparency. For him to talk about these topics with such little reserve is exciting, for it indicates that we are progressively changing our views on mental health illness. Here, you will find some of his responses that made writing this article worthwhile.
Question: “Have you experienced a situation where you were rejected /dismissed because of limited access to effective care?”
Adrian’s response: “Yes, it’s been difficult to find specialists who treat or understand the complexities of patients who have Asperger’s. When I did resort to on-campus resources, I would get referred to therapists outside of the CWC. I recognize that this is a conventional procedure for therapists when encountered with conditions outside of their field; however, it’s most definitely an issue that could easily be managed by expanding the number of therapists and counselors.”
I followed with, “What are your opinions on your University’s overall social climate regarding mental illness? And how do you feel that it can be positively enhanced?”
And he responded, “I used to get off at Southwest Gym to avoid others seeing me go into the CWC. But with time, I became less affected by appreciating my own strengths and self-worth. The environment at UF is very competitive, and many students are put through an incredible amount of pressure. I think it’s important for students to vocalize their disabilities and anxieties to faculty members and colleagues – especially at the start of each semester. Academic advisors should work in conjunction with the disability resource center and mental health providers on campus to create a more accepting environment for students and their issues. Anxiety, depression, or any other mental disparity, should be considered an excusable explanation for the academic decline – and the university should start to recognize that.”
At the University of Florida, we’ve seen a growth in health awareness campaigns (U Matter We Care, AWARE, and GatorWell services). However, these campaigns do not fully address the need of counselors for students with existing mental illness or clinical conditions, like Aspergers. Based on the demand for mental health resources, it may be time to not only focus on prevention, but also on rapidly responding to high-risk students. Some modifications to tackle these issues could aim to:
- Shorten wait times at mental health resources
- Build an “express line” for students seeking immediate care
- Make exceptions for students to skip triage assessments based on need
- Implement academic advising programs that work with mental health specialists to alleviate academic anxiety
- Create accessible programs for specific mental health illnesses or concerns such as:
- Online or mobile platforms that provide information on resources, treatments, and instructions for students to get care
- Design separate facilities for individuals with chronic mental illnesses
College students face an insurmountable amount of pressure from perennial nuisances. Sadly, many established universities inadvertently cultivate mental health stigmatization, either through limited resources or inadequate mental health awareness. It’s important to admit personal responsibility for the manifestations of our social environments. People don’t have the choice of obtaining a mental illness, but people do have the choice to perpetuate stigma. Because of stigma, we (i.e. students) often disclaim our unnatural tendency to placate our internal unrest from others. Ironically, these anxieties are often rooted by ubiquitous insecurities like achieving academic and professional expectations or managing financial and social uncertainties. Therefore, as students, it’s important to become educated on mental health issues, learn to differentiate between psychological disorders and be cognizant of the early stages of high-functioning depression/anxiety. At an institutional level, what can be done to dissolve these disparities? Firstly, it’s time to start acknowledging that mental illness is a determinant of health. Universities need to acknowledge the benefits of funding programs to expand mental health resources – because there’s more to health than fitness. Health is built and lived by people within the settings of their everyday life; where they learn, work, play and love. Health is created by caring for oneself and others, by being able to gain control over one’s life, and by ensuring that the society one lives in creates conditions that support the attainment of health for all its members.
New, J. (2017, January 13). Balancing Response and Treatment. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/01/13/colleges-struggle-provide-ongoing-treatment-demands-mental-health-services-increases
Potrafka, M. (2016, February 19). Mental health on college campuses: A look at the numbers. Retrieved from https://groups.google.com/a/mst.edu/forum/#!topic/family-grp/9cwLcy_0CLw
Suicide Prevention Resource Center. (2014). Suicide among college and university students in the United States. Waltham, MA: Education Development Center, Inc.
Edited By: Casey Parker
Maria Gutierrez is a 4th year Health Education & Behavior major at the University of Florida. She’s currently a full-time research assistant for Dr. Stellefson from the department of Health Education & Behavior.