September 2019 Advocate: College students facing mental health crisis


College students facing mental health crisis

By Helen Chuong Brody, LMFT

Skyline College students, like college students around the nation, have been facing an escalating mental health crisis like no other time in modern history. If you are someone who works with students on a college campus, I’m sure you’ve observed firsthand, heard, or read about the concerning trend of increasing mental health problems among our college students across this country. Community college students in particular are at higher risk and more likely than their peers at four-year universities to struggle with mental health problems due to coping with a complex array of adverse childhood and life experiences. When unaddressed, adverse childhood experiences result in lifelong negative psychological and health outcomes that impact every aspect of life.

40% of California community college students reported feeling overwhelming anxiety

A March 2016 report based on the survey of more than 4,000 students at 10 community colleges across the country, published by the Healthy Minds Network at the University of Michigan and Wisconsin HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, found 50% of students reported having one or more mental health conditions. Depression and anxiety were the most common conditions reported. Yet only 30 percent of students struggling with a mental health problem accessed any form of therapy or medication treatment. In the 2016 California Community College survey of more than 7000 students, nearly 80% of students reported feeling overwhelmed, 40% reported overwhelming anxiety, 11% reported having seriously contemplated suicide, and 2% having attempted suicide.

Skyline student died by suicide

In my 13 years as a licensed marriage and family therapist, I had not assessed as many cases of suicide risk as I had during these last two as a Psychological Services Counselor at Skyline College. Approximately 25% of the students I worked with experienced suicidal thoughts. Sadly, one of these students died by suicide in the beginning of November 2018. This was a student whom I, and another counselor, had seen for brief counseling, the typical model of counseling provided on college campuses when there are services.
Inadequate response by administrators

Deeply affected as I was to hear of this tragedy, it was more disturbing the way these circumstances were handled by our administrators. We counselors processed amongst ourselves at the time, but our request for a full team debrief was not fulfilled until January of 2019, two months later. Meanwhile, our request for a follow up to discuss lessons learned so that we could improve upon future team and institution-wide procedures has yet to materialize. Feedback from faculty also indicated their need to discuss this serious issue, but administrators provided no acknowledgement of these circumstances, nor designated a space for this important community dialogue around student mental health and suicide. If these dire consequences did not shake up a system that is not working, and wake up administrators who need to fully realize the seriousness of our students’ mental health needs, what will?

40% of Skyline students reported mental health issues interfered with their academic success

If Skyline College’s Department of Student Services prioritizes the provision of equity and fostering of student readiness as I have heard they do, then addressing the pervasive stress, anxiety and depression among our student population with competent, available mental health care is crucial to reaching this mission of student success and completion. The most recent Spring 2018 Skyline College Student Voice Survey indicated 40% of students reporting their emotional and/or mental health interfering with their ability to succeed academically, while only 16% accessed Psychological Services. If a student is not well, either physically or mentally, or is stressed and overwhelmed due to financial, food, housing and other insecurities such as the ones our students have reported, then their likelihood of staying the course and graduating, and doing that in a timely manner is significantly reduced.

Student mental health care cut while new administrative positions added

Student readiness and success are intricately tied to mental health, and the provision of campus mental health services intricately tied to student equity. I am concerned that Skyline College administration is missing the mark. When budget constraints led to the reduction of competent student mental health care after Spring 2019 while there was funding for brand new administrative appointments, we have to wonder where the priorities truly lie.

An institution, and its budget allocations, that minimize support for their front-line counselors will have a burned out workforce inadequately able to support student needs. Both psychological and academic counselors do their best to support students day in and day out. However, academic counselors, who inevitably deal with students’ mental and emotional stress during academic advising, feel they too are not given enough tools, resources, time or support to handle these very real stressors of their work.

Colleges need to increase and improve student psychological services to address extreme needs

If the college’s mission is to help students succeed and graduate, then what we need is more competent, accessible mental health care and student support resources, not less. We can send students to attend 100 workshops on study skills or college success skills, which are valuable skills to acquire, but until students learn to regulate their emotions that arise from stress and anxiety, they cannot take in useful information. When stress spikes, our biology takes over and the prefrontal cortex that is home to our cognitive functioning, is inaccessible until we calm our emotions. Learning to self-regulate so that we can use our cognitive abilities to their full potential is the work of counseling and mental health services. That is why mental health is a prerequisite for student learning and success, and precisely the reason for this college and other colleges to increase psychological services and overall resources directly for students in need.

When this institution’s decision-makers truly prioritize student equity and success, what it will look like is staffing with more experienced psychological services counselors, more support for academic counselors with handling students’ emotional and mental health, and the allocation of proper physical settings to accommodate students’ needs for privacy. Without actualizing these institutional investments, we are falling short of the College’s purported commitment to upholding our mission and values.

Data on college student mental health trends:

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students (Active Minds, 2018)

The Annual National College Health Assessment
conducted by the American College Health Association

Mental health assessment categories
reported by college students:
Fall 2018 Fall 2010
Felt things were hopeless 53% 44%
Felt overwhelmed by all that they had to do 85% 83%
Felt very lonely 63% 54%
Felt very sad 69% 58%
Felt so depressed it was difficult to function 41% 28%
Felt overwhelming anxiety 62% 46%
Seriously considered suicide 11% 6%
Among a list of areas of life that were either traumatic or difficult to handle: #1 difficulty was
academics, reported by 48% of students
#1 difficulty was
academics, reported by 42% of students