Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Increasing mental health needs

We learned many things from the COVID pandemic including what didn't work in various systems and supply changes on which we depended. Health and wellness is an area that was exacerbated by the isolation of months of shut-downs where personal interaction was replaced by a mass movement to virtual communication and meetings. The heightened awareness of both physical and mental health needs has reinforced the importance of providing a broader array of wellness interventions in higher education and community settings.

The soaring numbers related to anxiety disorder is one of the more prominent examples of unmet need. A close friend when I was a graduate student at CSU was a hilarious and talented student in veterinary medicine. He worked summer orientation with me and was selected as a resident assistant in my building. While serving as a resident assistant, he started coming to my apartment during the middle of the night, just wanting to be with me. All I knew to do was leave my door open to respond to his needs. When my company ceased to help, he went to the health center where he was prescribed medication. Unfortunately, medication ultimately seemed to exaggerate his symptoms. He withdrew from CSU to return home, broken by his inability to pursue his dream of becoming a vet.

Years later I began struggling with being able to sleep at night and I started having fearful thoughts that were almost obsessive. Immersed in frustration, I remembered my former friend and colleague and recognized the similarity between what I was experiencing and what caused him to leave his studies. I tracked him down to ask for his help. He immediately recognized my symptoms as similar to his own, symptoms that in the meantime had drawn him to pursue a doctorate in psychology with a research focus on anxiety disorder. To this day, I credit my friend and colleague with throwing me a life-line, one which prevented a deeper crash and offered hope (and success) in managing anxiety disorder throughout the rest of my adult life.

Anxiety disorder has now emerged as the most common of mental health needs. Estimates are that 34% of undergraduate students have some degree of anxiety disorder, a condition that appears to have been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic and perhaps the advance of technology that drives many young people deeply into isolation. The isolation and reduced interaction with others has been hypothesized as increasing the prevalence of anxiety disorder. Researchers have found that 64% of those who have dropped out of college had mental health-related reasons, 45% of which had no accommodation and 50% had limited access to mental health services. The impact of this in disrupted educational and personal life is unmeasurable. And, the cost of college drop-outs to institutions justifies the researchers' call that colleges must do more to address mental health needs.

But, addressing the increased prevalence of mental health complications requires more than just adding counselors. Some institutions resorted to out-sourcing counseling due to budget restrictions in the face of rising demand. However, relying on external providers neglects the role of community, which is the quality of addressing students' needs through connective, supportive, and positive environments for all. Encouraging resilience is an important part of a positive climate but it must not minimize the suffering experienced by those struggling with mental health. Officials at the University of New England say, "Messages of strength, resilience and the expectation of positive outcomes must extend beyond college counseling services to all aspects of the student experience" and well-coordinated networks of support should be a dependable dimension of the student experience.

My previous blog post on Health and Well-being in Higher Education addresses the variety of challenges related to the mental health needs of students, a phenomenon that is complicated and requires a comprehensive response. I'm thankful that educators are now understanding the need for greater mental health services and a more wholistic approach to it, a commitment that is reinforced by my personal experience and the professional role I played as a university administrator for over 40 years.

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