Saturday, November 2, 2013

Are We Failing Our Students with Mental Illness?


"Student affairs people are not angels tossing around the fairy dust of equality and love for all. They are real people who have been shaped by society and their personal experiences" 


What if I told you that student affairs graduate programs (and the field in general) are ignoring 25% of the students we work with?

If you’re a cynic (or, let’s be real, just paying attention to higher ed issues), you would probably not be surprised. For all the sweet talk of social justice we still have yet to overthrow the oppressing factors within our institutional structures.

But at least we talk about some social justice topics even if we aren’t collectively taking action as much as we should. We’re barely talking about the following population of students.

According to NAMI and other researchers, more than 25% of college students have a mental illness.

Campus counseling center directors state that there has been an 85% rise in students with severe psychological issues being treated in the last five years. Student affairs administrators reported that they were spending more time dealing with troubled students and had seen marked increases in the following serious mental health problems on campus: Eating Disorders (+58%), Drug Abuse (+42%), Alcohol Abuse (+35%), Classroom Disruption (+44%), Gambling (25%), and Suicide Attempts (+23%) (Kitzrow, 2003, p.169).

These increases are a result of factors such as: some mental illnesses manifest in early adulthood (depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia), new medicine and better childhood treatment measures allow students with mental illness to attend college who would have been unable in the past, society is placing new pressures on students, and it is becoming more socially acceptable to seek treatment which makes members of this population more visible at health centers and in research (Kitzrow, 2003, p.171).

So…why on earth are we not becoming more educated on these topics within graduate programs and professional development?

To play devil’s advocate, I could argue that we just simply do not have time. Most programs are 2-year programs and there’s barely enough time to cover more than the basics of counseling, diversity, administration, theory, etc. Besides, if students really want to learn more about mental health, they can always take a counseling or psychology elective!

And…well, I could say that we work in student affairs, not the counseling center. We are not equipped to fully treat students with mental illness. If a student says they are going through an issue we are, however, equipped to talk to them and point them to the right resources.

Okay, but really…

Those excuses don’t cut it. First, graduate students and current professionals need to take initiative in learning more on the issues we do not cover in our courses and professional development. On the flip side of the coin, by not educating student affairs graduate students in their programs and practitioners in the field via professional development, we are failing our students.

It’s not even about failing our students…we are a danger to our students.

"Whoa girl, stop"

“Whoa, you did not just say that.”

Student affairs people are not angels tossing around the fairy dust of equality and love for all. They are real people who have been shaped by society and their personal experiences. And if there is one thing that society is good at, it is helping to embed all sorts of prejudices within our minds with the subtlety of a mosquito – unless we scratch that itch it left behind, we usually don’t even notice or forget all about it.

Mental health stigma is a real thing. Think about it. How many times have you called someone “crazy” “schizo” “OCD” “bipolar”? Or said something like “Ugh, I’m so depressed ever since Firefly was cancelled” when at worst you were sad about it or at best it was just a minor annoyance? Or how many times have you judged someone for their real or perceived mental illness?

Dude, stop being so PC,” you might say. And I would respond that a survey of people with mental illness cited repeated instances of dealing with stigma in their lives (Wahl, 1999) and that a moment to critically think about society and pop culture will have you recalling examples quicker than K Fed’s career (who?). Sure, to you calling yourself “OCD” is a ‘funny’ way of saying you like things organized but someone with OCD who overhears you may just feel mocked and dehumanized. Microaggressions are like papercuts – they sting and seem insignificant at first…until those cuts begin multiplying and become increasingly painful.

There are real life consequences of the lack of education in student affairs and inherent bias we all have (thanks Obama!). 
  • 64 percent of young adults who are no longer in college are not attending college because of a mental health related reason.11 Depression, bipolar disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder are the primary diagnoses of these young adults.12
  • 31 percent of college students have felt so depressed in the past year that it was difficult to function and more than 50 percent have felt overwhelming anxiety, making it hard to succeed academically.13 
  • More than 45 percent of young adults who stopped attending college because of mental health related reasons did not request accommodations.14 50 percent of them did not access mental health services and supports either.15
  • Overall, 40 percent of students with diagnosable mental health conditions did not seek help.16 57 percent of them did not request accommodations from their school.17
  • Concern of stigma is the number one reason students do not seek help.18 (NAMI)

“So what you’re saying is student affairs is the worst and these stats are all our faults…” Nope! Definitely not! We just have some work to do. Unlike what people think, we’re not superheroes and most certainly not saviors.

But imagine how different the landscape would look like if we knew how to recognize symptoms, insert more programming and services for students with mental illness, and knew how to better train our staff (including student staff) on these issues. What if instead of letting words slide like “I’m so depressed” we actually became comfortable asking tough questions like “What do you mean by that?” and straight up offering resources? It’s difficult to have those questions if we feel uneducated on the subject. After all, what if they really do feel depressed? How do we react??

I’m not saying that no one in student affairs does this. There are phenomenal people out there who are trying to meet mental health needs on campuses. But instead of typically ignoring it in the curriculum and professional development, how about we make some changes?

Where to start making changes?
Following up, I’m not some political pundit who spits out thoughtless complaints without ideas for how to make changes. This is an issue of justice that I feel passionate about. Therefore, my contribution to the movement is to hold a discussion group with fellow HESA graduate students this semester. Seeing the lack of structured conversations on important issues like social justice taking place outside the classroom; and the overall desire by HESA students to have these conversations, I began DADA (Discussions Advancing Deeper Awareness). Clearly my Harry Potter geekiness contributed to the name, but my drive to change campus climates resulted in this group. DADA is a grassroots structured discussion group that so far this year has included 14 students in two discussion groups on the topic of “Spirituality” and “Mental Health Reboot”. It’s an opportunity to share personal experiences, ask questions, and philosophize – with research interwoven throughout.

What about you? How do you see yourself contributing to education on mental illness within our field and working towards justice for our students with mental illness? What are you already doing? Comment below or tweet at me (@NikiMessmore) with your thoughts and ideas. 

Join DADA today as we learn the Defense Against the Dark Arts of Social Injustice! :)

References & Resources:

Kitzrow, M. A. (2003). The mental health needs of today’s college students: Challenges and recommendations. NASPA journal, 41(1), 167-181. Retrieved from

Hunt, J., & Eisenberg, D. (2010). Mental health problems and help-seeking behavior among college students. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(1), 3-10. Retrieved from

Eisenberg, D., Downs, M. F., Golberstein, E., & Zivin, K. (2009). Stigma and help seeking for mental health among college students. Medical Care Research and Review, 66(5), 522-541. Retrieved from

Mori, S. C. (2000). Addressing the mental health concerns of international students. Journal of Counseling & Development, 78(2), 137-144. Retrieved from

Kisch, J., Leino, E. V., & Silverman, M. M. (2005). Aspects of suicidal behavior, depression, and treatment in college students: results from the spring 2000 national college health assessment survey. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 35(1), 3-13. Retrieved from,%20Depression,and%20Treatment%20in%20College%20Students%20%28E%29.pdf

Nigatu, H. (September 19, 2013). 21 Comics that Capture the Frustrations of Depression. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from

Corrigan, P. W. (2000). Mental health stigma as social attribution: Implications for research methods and attitude change. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 7(1), 48-67.

Wahl, O. F. (1999). Mental health consumers' experience of stigma. Schizophrenia bulletin, 25(3), 467. Retrieved from

NAMI (n.d.). Learn about the issue. Retrieved from