From anxiety over lack of career possibilities, to dealing with helicopter parents to the stress of balancing final exams, essays and hunting for summer jobs, the stress of being a university or college student is increasing. Last week, a new study from the National College Health Assessment found that 89 per cent of students had felt overwhelmed and 56 per cent had found academics very difficult to handle.
However, as an administrator in higher education, I am wrestling with the question of our role in the treatment of mental health issues in colleges and universities. Institutions are often confronted with students who have their first experience with mental health issues in the postsecondary system; in the last 10 years, counselling and health services at campuses have seen an exponential rise in the number of students who need help.
Reports have also found an increase in those students with significant confirmed mental health disorders on campus. This further taxes resources as institutions try to respond to help the students through their struggles. On the positive side, the increase in such disorders could be attributed to more willingness to seek out help and assistance. On the less positive side, some reports suggest usage rates are being driven up by lack of resilience in students to self-manage and the shortage of available and affordable supports in the community.
The rise in demand for such services suggests that institutions need to begin to think about their role in the management and resourcing of mental health supports on campus. While our role should be to promote positive mental health and well-being, the impact this has on our academic mission and mandate has to be examined. Ultimately, we should be part of a treatment solution, but we cannot solely be responsible as a treatment facility, which is what many who I work with in the postsecondary sector are feeling.
There are examples of practices we engage in now that impact the university’s primary mission. Students are often discharged from hospital or from other providers with referral to counselling on campus. In many cases, these services have not been set up to address these referrals because they operate on a solutions-focused model, not a long-term therapeutic model.
As partners, postsecondary institutions can and should develop better bridges with agencies and community health centers instead of stand-alone facilities that operate within college and university buildings to support students with severe mental health issues. As partners, we should focus our efforts at promoting the ideas of resilience through normalizing the anxieties faced by students instead of diagnosing a condition. The life of a student can be difficult, but too often we are quick to label with a diagnosis instead of teaching strategies to live, learn and manage the day to day challenges. Finally, as partners, we need to help students identify their career goals and strengths, so they can lead purposeful lives, thus limiting the potential of a mental health related crisis.
The system is still too fragmented and needs to be improved. This can be accomplished by being more honest about our limitations, firmly delineating our roles as partners and developing better communications channels to best serve and support our students to experience personal and academic success.
Joe Henry, is the Associate Dean of Student Success at Sheridan College and Ed. D student at Northeastern University