It’s Time to Change the Face of Mental Health Awareness on College Campuses
In February of this year, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed piece entitled “College students facing depression need more than a list of doctors to call.” The stark reality the article presents is this: the number of college students struggling with mental illness is on the rise, and in many cases, their schools are unequipped or even unwilling to offer them the proper health care.
Like Julia Lieblich, the author of that article, I myself began struggling with depression and anxiety in my freshman year of college. In reality, I had probably been dealing with them for much longer, but that year brought them to the forefront. By the time I went home for Christmas, I had all but stopped eating, and I spent more time sleeping than I spent awake. Many people talk about gaining their “freshman fifteen”; I had lost at least twenty pounds. I couldn’t even imagine leaving the house most days, let alone going back to school.
But I went back. I began meeting with the on-campus counselor, the sun came out, the weather got warmer, and things got better. Depression, however, is not a one-time thing with a one-time fix, and for me, it came back with a vengeance in the fall of my sophomore year.
What started out as exhaustion and stress soon spiraled into isolation, panic, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. One night, in a hotel room, while I was traveling with the soccer team, I opened the silverware drawer in the little kitchenette and looked at the knives. Wondering. Fortunately, some part of me still had enough sense to be frightened, and shaking, crying, I shut the drawer, picked up my phone, and texted my friend a couple rooms away.
Things moved quickly after that, or at least they started to. I had regular mandatory meetings with my coach, the counselor, and the on-campus doctor. The latter prescribed me my first antidepressant and gave me a list of psychiatrists to call. For a moment, I had hope that things might be on a decent upswing.
But the antidepressant made me irritable and jittery; I stopped taking it after about a month. And from the list of psychiatrists came nothing but a long line of unanswered messages, impossibly long—if not indefinitely closed—waiting lists, and offices that were very sorry but they didn’t take my insurance. So I fell back on the only thing I had: coping by myself as best I could.
Which only works so well, for so long.
My soccer team went to the conference tournament. I stayed behind because I could no longer cope with the stress of traveling. Instead, I got to go to a meeting with the director of Student Life, who looked me in the eye and told me she didn’t believe I actually wanted to get better. She had all these suggestions about eating healthier and exercising more and getting outside, and she asked me why I wasn’t trying these things. She said she often felt down and anxious but they made her life so much better.
Haven’t you heard? You can cure your depression if you just try hard enough.
The ironic thing was, I had been having a pretty good day up until I went to that meeting. It ruined my day. But it also set me on the path to where I am today, to the message I am here to give you.
“It’s past time for mental health to be a priority for colleges.”
I could say it no better than Julia Lieblich so succinctly puts it. Most college students are on their own for the first time, in a new environment, taking care of themselves in ways they have never had to before. Some do fine on their own. Many need some help along the way. The institutions that claim to be educating them, molding them, and preparing them for the world should be giving them that help. They should be:
• providing their students with access to mental health resources beyond handing them a list of local psychiatrists who may never see them
• educating their faculty—especially those involved in student life—about the reality of mental illness
and most importantly
• fostering an atmosphere of dialogue and compassion throughout the entire community
The stigma surrounding mental illness ought to be a thing of the past by now. People need to know that they are not alone or uncared for. Colleges are in the unique position of being able to shape the young people of the world on their own turf from within their own community. This is not an opportunity or a privilege. This is their duty. It is time for them to perform it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: VICTORIA NELSON
As of summer 2015, I’m a rising junior at the University of Dallas in Irving, TX. I’m studying Philosophy, with an eye on a possible double major with English. I’m not sure what exactly I want to do with that yet, but I know I want to change the world, so I write a lot and talk even more. I have a lot of ideas that I’m excited to share with people. I try to be a writer, and I fancy myself a philosopher, but mostly I’m just a lover of life.