Kamrin Baker

Founders Roundtable: This Is What Mental Health Looks Like At Colleges Across America

MTV’s Campus Ambassadors weighed in on what resources their schools offer — and what they don’t

Our January theme for MTV Founders is Moving Forward. As the new year begins, we’ll be exploring how to find motivation and resolve within our self-improvement goals, mental health, activism, and relationships.

This week, we’re taking a look at how we can move forward specifically in terms of our mental health. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, approximately 42,773 Americans commit suicide each year, a statistic that includes many college students. We opened up the conversation to our own MTV Campus Ambassadors to find out what resources are available on their college campuses, what their schools can improve upon, how they practice self-care beyond the resources their schools provide, and what advice they would give to incoming freshmen in terms of finding support.

Join the conversation with #mtvmovingforward and let us know how you’re moving forward in 2017 at mtvfounders@gmail.com.

Kamrin Baker, The University of Nebraska-Omaha: I am extremely involved in advocating for those who have mental illnesses, both on campus and in my own writing. I’m part of the state of Nebraska’s only NAMI on Campus club, which is a student-led version of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The club is only two years old, so we haven’t been able to fully dissect all the issues surrounding mental illness at UNO, but it’s awesome to be a part of something that aims to make a difference. I think a major part of decreasing stigma and increasing support on campus is to simply have conversations about mental illness and reinforce that those feelings are real and valid, even if they suck.

The one thing I think my university — and all universities — can improve upon is increasing the amount of resources available to students. No matter how involved a counseling staff is, unfortunately, there are rarely enough people on staff at my school to help every single student suffering with mental illness. If one in five people suffer from a mental illness and my college has about 15,000 students, that means at the very least, 3,000 members of the school’s population deal with any number of disorders on a daily basis. So, my question is, how do we tackle these huge numbers in a way that doesn’t break the bank or put the lives and happiness of students in jeopardy?

Emma Havighorst, Fordham University: I totally agree that there’s a numbers issue when it comes to dealing with mental illness, but tackling it must still be a priority at schools — on college campuses as well as in high schools. Personally, I feel that my school barely has adequate resources to help students who have already worked with mental health professionals, much less students just coming to terms with their mental illness who might be seeking aid or counseling to deal with it for the first time.

I think the first thing the public needs to do is to ensure that schools and other larger institutions employ capable counselors and mental health professionals who are available and helpful to the students. At my own school, I've seen the administration position counselors as a “last resource” by saying that they’re available, but that you should try other resources first, like Residence Assistants or advisers.

Emily Tantuccio, Rutgers University: You guys are right — it definitely all comes down to opening up and maintaining a dialogue about mental health, to the point where it’s looked at as something that should be prioritized in someone’s health management just as much as getting a flu shot or going to the gym.

I go to a large school (we’ve got about 60,000 students at Rutgers), yet I think my school actually does a pretty good job of making students aware of the resources we have. My school calls these resources CAPS — Counseling, ADAP, and Psychiatric Services — and they’re pretty persistent about making sure kids know the resources are available and that people should feel free to come make an appointment if they feel they need to for any reason. I’ve never needed them, so I can’t vouch firsthand for how the experience is as a patient, but I think even the site is structured in a way that’s very student- and user-friendly. For example, there are a few different self-screening tests for mental health or substance abuse issues, which could be really important for kids who put themselves in the mind-set of “If I don’t know I really even have a problem, why should I go?” Whenever there’s a tragedy involving any students on campus, we usually get several emails reminding us that CAPS is there if we need it.

I think that reminding students of these resources is a really important part of helping to minimize feelings of helplessness that some might find themselves dealing with, especially with everything going on in the world today. Our school doesn’t treat CAPS like some dark corner of campus that you have to actively make a ton of calls to find, or that makes you wait a long time for an appointment. Rather, it’s presented as a resource that’s just as readily available as meeting with academic advisers or taking a class at our gyms.

Sara Li, The University of Kansas: I attend a huge public university in a state in which there haven’t been a ton of public discussions about mental health, to my knowledge. But despite the overall cultural silence, my campus has done a relatively good job of providing resources for those, like myself, who need it, but have been unsure of how to exactly get it.

My school brings in a lot of alumni speakers and they’ll often talk about the hardships that they’ve endured. I remember being a college freshman and listening to prominent campus figures (faculty, student senators, guest lecturers) talk about their own experiences battling mental illnesses. My professors have also done a really good job of being upfront about mental health: They often encourage students to talk to them and seek help through our campus services (CAPS). Like Emily said, it’s about having the dialogue, and my university really puts forth the effort to prioritize mental health.

Mental health shouldn’t be taboo. The more that we open ourselves up to speaking up, the less debilitating mental illness becomes. No one should have to fight these battles by themselves, and I think that providing an open space to recover is the first step to ending a stigma that should’ve been eradicated long, long ago.

Emily Tantuccio, Rutgers University: I feel like bringing in guest lecturers or asking community members to speak about mental health is a really important — but often overlooked — way to normalize discussion about this. Especially if there are kids in the room who might have been struggling to muster up the courage to get help, hearing these speakers discuss their struggles and how they overcame them might make them feel that it’s OK to ask for help and be honest about what they’re going through.

Jaime Gordon, Duke University: Definitely, Emily. Being comfortable enough to ask for help is so important. There’s a lot of pressure to succeed at Duke, and many students therefore struggle with burnout, anxiety, depression, and other issues — but they try to conceal them.

Our administration has really been ramping up the mental health resources on campus in recent years. We also have a center called CAPS that offers free one-on-one counseling and psychological services to students by appointment. We have a Wellness Center that offers massage chairs, information about stress management, and other self-care tools. Duke is also really great about creating small pop-up events during stressful times — such as puppies in the library during finals week — to ensure that everyone takes much-needed breaks. Lastly, student organizations on campus are always taking new and innovative approaches to destigmatizing mental health. A good example of this is the group “Teaching Everyone About Mental Health.”

Bizzy Emerson, University of Missouri: I’ve noticed that conversations surrounding self-care have become more prominent since I entered college, which is something that high schools should take into greater consideration. I was recently diagnosed with generalized anxiety and depression, and if I had better access to similar resources during those especially difficult teenage years, I might have felt more secure about my mental illnesses and unafraid to seek help. I feel fortunate to be at a university that emphasizes wellness and provides accessible care when necessary, but I have found that there are also downsides, such as long waits for counseling center appointments.

Justin Clay, Georgia State University: For those who do not have access to a counseling center, I would recommend finding another emotional outlet. An emotional outlet can be pretty much anything: It doesn’t necessarily have to follow any rules, and can just be a space where you share your thoughts rather than letting them swell up and crowd your mind. Things like journals, blogs, and sketchbooks are great ways to share your emotions. Even just talking with close friends and relatives can be a productive emotional outlet.

Taylor Vidmar, Richland Community College: The situation on my campus is definitely a bit different. I go to a community college that doesn’t really offer access to any mental health professionals on campus. In an ideal world, all campuses would be able to have clubs and resources like those Kami described at UNO, but smaller schools often struggle to find funding to provide these resources.

That being said, I do strongly believe that community colleges benefit students’ mental health in other ways — like in terms of easy access to trusted advisers or other professors, for example. Because my campus has a small student population, my adviser doesn’t need to help as many students and is therefore able to meet with me often. Being able to grow closer with my adviser has made it so much easier for me to talk about any issues I have, personal or academic. For this reason, I think it’s extremely important for students who go to colleges without resources to form strong bonds with an adviser, professor, coach, or other official whom they trust and can turn to if they need to immediately express their issues with mental health and receive on-campus support.

But in order for this system to work, I also think advisers and professors should be prepared to recommend their students to a place where they can get more professional help if necessary. I also think it would be relatively inexpensive and easy for all colleges to do something similar to what Sara’s campus does, like offering a simple presentation during which students and professors can talk about their experiences with mental illness. At the very least, this would remind students that they’re not alone in their struggles.

Mariah Woods, Temple University: I feel like I have had to figure out this self-care thing — which is something I’m still discovering — all on my own. I am also a theater major, which is a major that can be challenging, as I'm a person who doesn’t care much for human contact or sharing my feelings.

But that being said, I feel incredibly grateful to all of my peers and professors who allowed me to lean on them when 2016 just wouldn’t end. More than anything, I’ve learned the importance of detoxing — whether from social media, toxic people, or food, all types of detoxing are important when it comes to taking care of yourself. DIY projects, mindless television, just sitting in a room with all of your friends, trashing everyone’s least favorite professor, and getting all of the tea about anything and everything have been important ways for me to deal with my own mental health. I am not denying the importance of being informed about mental health or having access to formal resources, but sometimes taking a day to just ignore the world when it becomes too much is helpful, too. So is blocking Donald Trump on Twitter.

Isabel Song, UC Berkeley: At my school, I’ve always felt that the students are pretty well versed in mental health issues. Discussions held during freshman orientation and later by upperclassmen, RAs, TAs, people in our student government, and others emphasized how important it was to make use of all the resources available to us. That message still resonates in the emails I get from school officials, the posters I see on campus, and even in the syllabi my professors write. We have group counseling, urgent counseling for emergencies, peer-to-peer student counseling, individual counseling, and more. Students can have up to eight individual sessions per academic year at the Tang Center, which is our health center on campus, and the first five are totally free no matter what insurance you have. We even have a Health Worker Program, where peer educators live in campus housing (in addition to our RAs) to promote health and self-care. Sometimes, students will even post in our school Facebook groups about how they’ll be at some place on campus with their dog if anyone wants a cuddle break for some loving #selfcare.

Especially considering that I’ve heard a lot of students at Berkeley talk about being depressed or overwhelmed with the rigorous coursework and competition among the massive student body, I’m really glad that I’m in a place where the students are willing to not only talk about it but do something about it, even if it means more school fees to support each other.

Moving Forward:

1. There’s a numbers issue when it comes to mental health. Mental illness is treated like a niche issue on many campuses, and the number of professionals employed to help students can reflect that. In reality, multiple studies have shown that mental health is a predominant issue among college students — and should be treated as such.

2. Campuses need to normalize the mental health resources they do have. Going to a counselor or center should be considered as normal as meeting academic advisers or going to the gym.

3. Mental health should be a topic of discussion not only among students, but among speakers and/or other prominent figures on campus.

4. Campuses should also emphasize ways for students to address mental health in their day-to-day lives — like emphasizing self-care, emphasizing the importance of strong communities, etc.

If you or someone you know is dealing with mental illness, there are ways to get help. Find resources, tips, and immediate help at Half of Us, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.