Universities need to address mental health stigmas and inadequate resources

By GRETCHEN PARMLEY ’16 

Contributing Writer

A Princeton student is suing the university for discrimination  against him on the basis of  his bipolar disorder and for jeopardizing his academic career following his suicide attempt on campus in 2012. The university refused to allow him to resume his courses for one year after the incident.

They would not even allow for a part-time academic schedule. The difficulties that this student underwent as a result of Princeton’s administration added to his stress and mental anguish and cost him out-of-pocket expenses for the classes he never completed.

The manner in which universities across the United States address mental health is often inadequate and enforces the notion that seeking help from mental health professionals in a time of distress may lead to disaster. These instances demonstrate a much larger issue surrounding mental health in our society.

The stigmatization of mental illness has lead to a lack of organized effort to treat and diagnose individuals who may be suffering. Just as colleges and universities require tuberculosis testing, vaccinations and physicals in order to admit students, mental health screening should be included with these health related examinations.

In our society, people do not feel ashamed of visiting the doctor for a routine check up, or even sharing their personal medical issues such as high cholesterol or asthma. However, people seldom share their mental health issues, something equally biological.

One cannot casually remark that they have a therapist appointment without fear of judgement. If people viewed therapists, individuals who also have a doctorate degree, as a doctor for your brain, who ensures that this extremely vital organ is functioning properly, then there would be less stigmatization of the practice.

Because of this societal trend, many people do not use these resources at all, until something major happens such as dropping out of school, a suicide attempt or a panic attack.

Mental health issues typically start during adolescence. The U.S. Surgeon General reports that 10 percent of children and adolescents suffer from serious emotional and mental disorders that significantly affect their daily lives. Yet many people are not diagnosed until later in life, when they might not have access to services without adequate health insurance or if their insurance doesn’t cover it.

If preventative care was more widely available and accepted, these issues would not spiral out of control and could be managed appropriately. From a public health perspective, we have school screening for all kinds of rare infectious diseases but not for common behavioral disorders that can be equally costly to the individual, family and society in terms of health care utilization, the cost of crime and the risk of death.

It is particularly important for colleges to be a place where there is mental health screening and open dialogue, as many mental illnesses first manifest themselves in a person’s late-teens or early-twenties. The transition into college life is a huge landmark event in a person’s life when change occurs very quickly. Because of the nature of this dramatic change, it makes sense that mental illnesses, which may have been latent, can emerge in college years.

Colleges should work under the assumption that starting college will be a difficult transition which may cause mental anguish. If the focus was taken off of celebrating college as the “best time of your life,” students would feel more comfortable coming forward with their problems before something major happens. It is important for colleges to talk about mental illness, starting from orientation for first-years.

An Associated Press news article on the issue stated that federal health officials recommended universal mental health screenings for students nearly a decade ago, but it’s still not required. As far as private universities go, such screenings will never be required to provide this service but only highly encouraged.

There has also been recent legislation on the topic. The President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health provides specific recommendations to improve and expand school mental health programs and to screen for co-occurring mental and substance use disorders, to link them with integrated treatment strategies.

This initiative represents a call to action for communities and states. They must move beyond their current fragmented and ineffective approaches to mental health care, which only help the small percentage of those in need. Instead they should move toward a broader public mental health system, which offers quality, effective care across a continuum of services. Hopefully, this initiative indicates growing attention to the importance of mental health in our society.

Finally, as a report from the Journal of School Health states, when implemented with appropriate family, school and community involvement, mental health screening in schools has the potential to be a cornerstone of a transformed mental health system that identifies youth in need, links them to effective services, and contributes to positive health and educational outcomes valued by families, school and communities.

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