Stigmatizing Mental Illness: The Double Standard of U.S. Collegiate Mental Health Policy

By Amani Carson. 

Dear United States College Administrators:

No one has to tell you, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” and yet every year, we see the loss of 1,088 minds when college students turn to suicide.  A decision must be made in light of the thousands adversely affected by the current state of U.S. collegiate mental health policy, and the choice is yours.  Do you want the tormented to seek help? Or should they bite the bullet and suffer in silence?

At first look, the answer might seem obvious: tell the students to speak up, and the administration will help them. Unfortunately, though, when push comes to shove, this mantra has rarely been realized. In many cases, students at their wits’ ends turn to university mental health and counseling resources only for administrators to promptly and unsympathetically expel them. Some might argue administrators have no choice. The school cannot jeopardize the safety of the rest of the student body for a single individual, who could potentially harm him/herself or others.

Here’s the catch. There is a growing population of mentally ill students on campus grinding their teeth to stay quiet, for fear their college might forget their astonishing accolades and attributes and thrust them headfirst into a downward spiral of fading opportunities and broken dreams. Unfortunately, silently trying to forget and repress their problems does not make them any better. Eventually, some of these muted individuals will no longer be able to wait for a transfer, or for vacation, or for tomorrow, or for a moment of happiness. Some of these students will pray for the end to come, and come quickly. What happens then?

Suicide. Violence against others. Mass shootings and subsequent suicide in the most extreme of cases. In other words, death, devastation, destruction – the same horrors the policy of carting “unstable” students off of campus was supposed to prevent.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that between 20 and 25 percent of college students suffer from mental health disorders. It is neither feasible to try and wipe such a substantial population clean off of campus nor to attempt to establish a student health program that can provide complete and comprehensive care to everyone in need. But it is very possible to reduce the number of students whose conditions escalate to a degree that would require hospitalization or long-term therapy. By publically removing the stigma of mental illness and offering a myriad of resources, administrators better serve the entire school community. 

First, administrations must be openly opposed to stigmatizing the mentally ill. Institutions should proudly explain their policy for supporting students with mental illnesses and note the various resources available on their campuses of which students could take advantage. For example, highlight the advisors and counselors available to answer questions students have about managing time and stress; have peer mentors direct potentially at-risk students to the appropriate places for help – be they tutoring centers, the gyms, off-campus getaways, or psychological counseling; and ask students who are comfortable with sharing to discuss their positive experiences with the on-campus assistance options. By the end of the introduction, students and their families should be aware that the institutions they will be attending are thoroughly committed to their “no tolerance” policy for discrimination and will offer assistance for students struggling with mental illnesses while getting their degree.

Second, address the stigmatization on campus. Students who need assistance need to feel comfortable taking advantage of the plethora of resources the school has to offer. At the root of stigmatization is stratification: the need to place groups of people in a hierarchy, such that some individuals are viewed more favorably than others. In populations as diverse as college campuses, students naturally integrate themselves into the existing hierarchy by gravitating to particular groups known for having specific traits and trying to fit in.

Although students will form social hierarchies beyond the administration’s control, administrators can act to minimize stratification and subsequent stigmatization in the academic sphere. For one, the students should be aware that taking steps to help one think more clearly is exactly the same as requesting tutoring or asking for assistance on a writing assignment; all of these actions involve making strides that will enhance academic performance. Furthermore, seeking outside help can be just as much a sign of wanting to prepare for greater challenges as it is of trying to play catch-up in class. Administrators can additionally work toward removing literal stratification, such as class rank, that simply compare students to one another without providing the contexts necessary to make those comparisons accurately.

Finally, administrators must not allow the horrors of suicide on campus to dissuade them from discussing it. Just as professors, student performance, and the quality of residential life are tracked and evaluated on a regular basis, so too should student mental health and intervention strategies. The mental illness “talk” should not be one reserved for the aftermath of tragedy, but rather an educational conversation that continues to provide information and support to those who need it most.

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