The Stigma, the Silence, and Suicide
New York University, 2003–2004, five students. Cornell, 2009–2010, six students. Penn State, 2014, six students. Tulane, 2015, four students. Appalachian State, 2015, three students. Columbia, 2016–2017, seven students. Each event, a chain of completed suicides and these are only the events that were covered by the media. Poring over reams of data, research studies, and articles paints a portrait of a generation of college students in the midst of a mental health epidemic and too many campuses throughout the United States lack the capacity to proactively provide services and outreach for these students at risk. (Scelfo, 2015, Cohen & Italiano, 2017).
The problem of providing mental health services to students is complex. It isn’t just an issue of increasing the number of counselors on campuses. One problem that we must address is making students aware that there is help and to seek help when they need it, but it becomes a question of how to inform the students that these services are available to them. What kind of curriculum can be introduced to the student body and faculty to increase awareness of mental issues and to recognize the someone is struggling? We talk about mental health issues in health classes and psych classes, but never about how these issues personally affect us. How do we reach out to students that won’t reach out for help? Even deeper, is the question of how to address the shame that students feel that causes them to avoid seeking help? Answering these questions can prevent lives from being cut short.
In her interview with the Aragon Outlook, Kathryn DeWitt, an alumnus from Penn State, stated that a reason her situation escalated up to nearly completing suicide was a lack of awareness of the resources available to her (Hsiao, 2016). This was also an issue at Columbia University. According to Jacqueline Basulto, in an interview with the New York Post, mental health services had been lacking at Columbia University with long waiting periods even for students that had become suicidal (Cohen and Italiano, 2017). Examining the aftermath of the suicide cluster at Columbia University earlier this year confirms that adequate help wasn’t provided and only after news of this tragedy was reported on by the New York Post, did the school reach out into its communities to ask how it can provide more resources for students struggling with mental health issues (Cohen and Italiano, 2017).
A solution that can be introduced to campuses are the programs such as the Penn Benjamins, introduced at Penn State after the death of Madison Halloran and others in 2014 (Scelfo, 2015). Penn Benjamins is a program that allows students to directly communicate with other students who have gone through similar experiences with depression and anxiety in an academic environment (Liu, 2015). Expanding sections on mental health in the various health classes that are part of the curriculum for entering freshmen at many campuses is another way to make students aware of the signs that they may be suffering from depression and anxiety while also making students aware of the resources available to them, without them needing to come forward.
Another possible solution is the introduction of curriculum similar to Think About It, an online course which details the dangers of drinking, drug use, and sexual assault on college campuses. Schools like San Francisco State University have made completion of this program mandatory for all incoming freshmen and transfer students. An online course can be introduced that goes in depth with signs of potential mental health issues and scenarios that student can encounter during their time in higher education that may put them at risk, as well as point out resources available to students on campus when they feel they may need help.
The stigma surrounding seeking help for mental health problems needs to be minimized. A student shouldn’t be made to feel unsafe or ashamed for seeking help. Students should not be punished for needing to help, which was the case for a student who completed suicide at Yale, stating that their fear of seeking help came from being afraid of being removed from school. Even DeWitt experienced this herself, researching whether her parents would get the tuition they paid for her to attend Penn State returned (Scelfo, 2015).
I hope that in sharing academic insight into mental health problems among college students while relating it to my own personal experience openly and candidly, I can help other people seek the resources they need. Students should never feel ashamed in seeking the mental health resources they need, especially when all they need is a reason to live. We have to start talking.
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