As exciting as the final push senior year in high school and freshman year in college are for those planning for and entering higher education, an equally present part of that transition is the potential for adult mental health crises or impaired function, such as performance affecting depression and anxiety.
The college matriculation zeitgeist in media over the last decade has thankfully helped heighten awareness of endemic binge drinking and sexual assault, as well as needed attention to the unsustainable increase in the cost of a traditional four-year college degree (and its doubtful investment payoff).
In recent years, media attention has shifted toward a broader focus on institutions addressing behavioral and mental health within an increasing percentage of traditional university students. I was reminded of this shift as two informative pieces hit my desk this week: A May 2015 New York Times article titled "Anxious Students Strain College Mental Health Centers" and an Aug. 30 rendition of a Philadelphia-area NPR weekly program examining the rise of student behavioral and mental health treatment on college campuses.
I am not surprised by this current media alarm that significant percentages of college students are seeking treatment for more common mental illness conditions such as anxiety and depression, as well as severe, persistent mental illnesses (SPMI) such as various forms of psychosis, obsessive compulsive, and borderline personality disorders. For almost 20 years, I taught English, Composition, and American/Women's Studies at Penn State University, an institution whose population is arguably a microcosm of the range of college-age personalities, temperaments and socio-economic backgrounds. During that time, I witnessed a rise in students presenting with all manner of behavioral/mental health concerns that often, but not always, inhibited their ability, even with treatment, to finish successfully a four-year college degree.
While depression interacting with substance abuse perhaps began and continues as the dominant behavioral/mental health concern for students at Penn State and nationwide, during my time at PSU as a faculty member I also interacted with students increasingly entering college with a history of diagnosis and treatment for higher order forms of psychosis and personality disorder. Before psychotropic medication, these students' attendance and completion of degrees at traditional universities would have been impossible.
So while the proliferation and availability of medication for students presenting with behavioral/mental heath problems have allowed young adults to continue rather than interrupt their educational and professional lives, the significant increase in that population attending higher education has presented a challenge to university facilities and to levels of collaboration between student mental health services and other student services.
In my present practice as a college coach, writing tutor and independent educational consultant, I work to help those students whose college trajectories have been troubled by problems ranging from executive functioning to bipolar disorder, and whose families are not only sometimes paying for a college semester their students were not able to complete, but for psychological, tutorial, and psychiatric triage in addition.
What I have observed is that those families and individuals who can use the increased awareness of everyday mental illness to help educate, treat, and de-stigmatize the presenting behavioral and mental challenges to college student life, and to talk openly and honestly about moving forward with a team of professional helpers much as they would work to treat physical problems or disease, often watch those sons and daughters receive a college diploma and enter a workplace that allows them greater access to the socio-economic benefits of an educated workforce.
It is promising to know that colleges and universities, as well as a discerning media, are paying attention to improvements in behavioral health that can be accomplished at the systemic level as well as in individual treatment available to students. Systemic change and public accountability benefit all of us parents, educators, and students, as the majority of families do not have the resources themselves to identify and treat mental health conditions that impede students' educational and professional growth
The hope with these changes is that students who suspect they are suffering from mental illnesses can seek out better resources to improve their ability to function and perform.