Mental health and higher education system.

photography of people graduating

Is college for me?

The question every high school student dreads. Our higher education system is designed to help us gain the necessary tools and lessons needed to be successful within our chosen career paths. College courses teach you how to learn while simultaneously preparing you for work in your field.

Today, college is highly publicized as a necessary step. Most jobs require a bachelor’s degree, while many require a masters or doctorate level.

Research has shown that 50% of students feel their mental health is poor or below average. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death between ages 10-35 and has risen significantly among the 10-24 age group since 1950.

The fact is: Our student population is struggling. According to Healthy Minds Network, 39% of college students in the US are diagnosed with depression. And, according to Imagine America Foundation, 1/3 of students who are diagnosed with depression drop out of college. And, according to a 2018 study by DOI, out of 67,000 surveyed students, 9% had attempted suicide.

Yet, our higher education facilities have only made minimal accommodations available to students.

Currently, in our Higher Education System, we offer “reasonable” accommodations to students living with mental illness who have qualified for disability. Although this seems like a great solution, it creates a wide gap that sets our students up for hardship. Many mental illnesses are often not diagnosed under the age of 18, such as borderline personality disorder (bpd). Furthermore, symptoms of anxiety and depression often begin to form during adolescence, but many children do not receive treatment or support, because symptoms are written off as typical adolescent behavior.

Therefore, because it is difficult to receive a diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional prior to adulthood (18+), many college students do not have a confirmed diagnosis that will allow them to apply for disability. We have seen most colleges add a Wellness or Counseling Center to their campuses. The counseling services are free and available to all students. However, they forget to mention that it may take over a month to get an appointment. Furthermore, they only offer a limited number of sessions, which discriminates against students needing long-term care.

Outside of the limited counseling services, the ADA has required both public and private universities to provide equal access to education for students with disabilities, as long as the accommodations do not fundamentally change the nature of the activity, service, or program. For a mental health to be considered a disability, documentation is required. This would not be a problem if majority of people were not undiagnosed. We do not live in a society of self-awareness with mental health nor where seeking professional psychiatric services is normalized. The stigma and financial barriers making it near impossible for many college students to obtain treatment.

Why are these counseling services insufficient?

Although many college campuses offer counseling services, they do not offer enough. Think about the amount of money invested into a piece of paper. Think about the number of lives lost every year to suicide. One study reported that 1 in 5 students have had thoughts of suicide with 9% making an attempt and nearly 20% reporting self-injury. Yet, funding sufficient counseling services is “too expensive” or “unnecessary.”

Imagine if you are experiencing debilitating anxiety attacks, depressive episodes, or manic episodes, but you have no official diagnosis. You are a financially struggling college student. Your family either does not believe in mental health so they will not help you pay for services, or your family cannot afford to help you pay for services. You also do not have a car and no bus routes drop off near an off-campus counseling office. Therefore, you cannot go off-campus for support. Thus, you call your campus Counseling Center. They have a 6 week wait for an appointment, meanwhile you have midterms next week. Without an official diagnosis and documentation, you cannot qualify for disability. Or you get in before exams, but your diagnosis is not considered “debilitating enough” for accommodation. Therefore, you have no accommodations. The day of your exam, you are experiencing the debilitating anxiety attack, depressive episode, or manic episode. You cannot stand up or pull yourself together to get to class. You genuinely feel helpless, and you desperately want support. But the system that you were told is meant to “set you up for success” is now working against you. You manage to make it to your exam and hide your symptoms long enough. Because your mind was overwhelmed by your mental health condition / symptoms, you were unable to concentrate. You exhausted countless hours trying to study, but you were unmotivated, unfocused, and restless. As a result, you failed your course. However, you were not taking only 1 course, you were taking 4, and all exams lined up in the same week. Exams count for 40-50% of your grade, meaning if you fail one, you likely fail the class. Your GPA drops, you lose financial aid, and can no longer afford to be a student. You either failed out or dropped out.

Does this seem dramatic? Yes? This is the reality for millions of college students.

In comparison to physical illness.

Students experiencing a physical illness are significantly more likely to receive an excused absence and assignment extension. Why? Because it is easier to obtain a doctors note. Have you ever heard of a doctor, let alone a college infirmary, telling a sick patient they have to wait 6 weeks for an appointment? No. When someone is sick, they get into see the doctor right away. Mental health is not treated with the same respect and importance. If the student could not obtain a doctor’s note due to high volume of patients and extended wait times, the professor is often likely to believe the student. However, if the student explained they were experiencing high anxiety or depression, the professor is apt to assume it is an excuse.

Our higher education system does not treat mental illness in the same regard as physical illness. Thus, students who are struggling are often forced to struggle in silence.

Other mental illnesses at play.

When we talk about mental health, we often focus on depression and anxiety. Let us discuss other mental health conditions that may not benefit from the current limited accommodations.

A student living with an eating disorder, specifically anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, is likely to be consuming insufficient levels of nutrients and calories. Therefore, their energy levels are reduced, and it is more difficult to concentrate. These students are not always able to keep up with the high demand of coursework. Research shows that 40% of incoming freshman at colleges / universities are likely to be living with an eating disorder. With 4-6 weeks wait to receive an appointment at the Counseling Center and lack of education / awareness on eating disorders, many students do not receive help. However, their grades are affected. With 40% of the population affected, you would assume colleges would have a system that helps individuals living with eating disorders. Yet not all universities offer ample free nutritionist services nor support in overcoming the eating disorder. Essentially, you are being punished for a mental illness that was not your choice.

Now, let us talk about a student living with ADHD. Under the ADA rules, only some people living with ADHD qualify for disability. Research shows that 5% of college students live with ADHD. Yet, without qualifying for disability, no accommodations are made. Many college courses are not designed to accommodate students with ADHD to begin with. A high percentage of courses require students to sit in silence and take notes for 2–3-hour periods at a time. Then, offer only long, 2-hour exams as grades. There is no accommodation built into the course structure that offers stimulation, positive feedback, or energy release. Again, based on design, you are being punished for a mental illness that was not your choice.

Let’s take it a step further. When a student has an allergy attack, they can easily go to the doctor and get a doctor’s note. However, a student facing a panic attack does not have that same luxury. It is not as easy to get an appointment with a mental health professional that same day to receive a doctor’s note in order to excuse an absence from class. What about students experiencing a manic episode or psychosis? They may not even know they are in an episode at that point, let alone be able to get a doctor’s note to excuse them from class.

Not only is there a lack of accommodation built into course structure, but also a lack of accessibility to receive a doctor’s note for an excused absence. Both of these make it extremely difficult for students living with mental illness to succeed in our higher education system.

Mental illness is not a choice.

Currently, our higher education system treats mental illness like it is a choice. The current system works against those living with mental illness, even though research proves suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among college students. The system provides minimal accommodations that offer little support and create a wider gap between students living with and without mental health symptoms / conditions. Imagine reaching out for support and being told, “We can only help you up to three times a year, but the first appointment available is in 6 weeks.”

Again, with physical illness, this is NOT an issue. We provide immediate support and resources to help the student get better and receive any accommodations needed.

Colleges, state education departments, and federal education department, why is my success at college not as important as someone without a mental illness? You have no problem collecting my tuition payments and loan repayments. If I were on a premiere sports team, there would be accommodations made for my success. Yet, you are not willing to make ample accommodations to help me succeed because mental illness is not your priority.

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