Breaking the Stigma: Mental Health on College Campuses

By: Yael Spodek  |  August 31, 2021

By Yael Spodek

The 21st century is an era of modern progressiveness with advancements in technology, medicine, and social justices. However, even with all of the improvements we have made in our world and society, there is still a prominent issue with the stigma around mental health. That’s not to say that we haven’t come a long way from how things used to be, but we also have a long way to go. A prime example of how the negative connotation surrounding mental health is prominent in today’s day and age is what happened when Simone Biles, age 24, pulled out of some gymnastic events during the Tokyo Olympics due to mental health concerns. Biles received a great deal of backlash against her decision, with television personalities such as Piers Morgan, saying in a tweet “Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke. Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time. Kids need strong role models, not this nonsense.” Unfortunately, Morgan wasn’t the only one who disapproved of Biles’ decision. Simone faced nasty comments from Charlie Kirk, the founder of the Turning Point USA, saying she’s a “selfish sociopath” and “a shame to this country” . However, with all the negativity directed towards Biles, many give her props for knowing what she needed and doing what was in her best mental and physical interest. 

According to the latest college students mental health statistics, more than 25% of students have been diagnosed with or treated for mental illness.  Within this percentage, 63% have dropped out of college due to their mental health struggles. Astoundingly, 71% of college students said they would use tele-mental health services, which is a medium for psychiatric appointments that uses video technology, at their school if they had access. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that 40% of college students who are diagnosed with some form of mental health conditions don’t speak up and ask for help, the main reason being that students are afraid due to the stigma surrounding mental health. Mental illness is, unfortunately, susceptible to stigmatization more than any other type of illness. The perceived stain around mental health includes ideas that people with mental disorders are violent or incompetant. People dealing with difficult mental health situations are often blamed for their illness, leading to the internalization of the stigma which results in distress and self doubt. Although, we have progressed as a society as a whole, on the views of mental health there is still a lot that needs to be done, especially considering that the suicide rate in college students is 1:5. In order to lower this rate and continue to help our future generations, barriers need to be broken and we should be prioritizing help and resources for mental health on college campuses specifically and generally in the greater population. 

In a 2020 article produced by the Light Program, a mental health treatment center, it states that the top four causes for an increase in mental illness on college campuses are pressure to succeed, financial worries, uncertainty about the future, and an increase in social media use.These four impactful circumstances have a significant effect on students’ academic performances. A Boston University mental health researcher, Sarah Ketchen Lipson, was the co-principal investigator of a nationwide survey which found that 83% of students academic performance declined due to their mental health challenges. During the Covid-19 Pandemic there was an increase of college students feeling lonely and isolated, adding to their already prevalent mental health concerns. Along with these statistics there should be an understanding from professors and administration that mental health is a serious topic that affects college students, which should initiate conversations about being more “flexible with deadlines and remind[ing] students that their talent is not solely demonstrated by their ability to get a top grade during one challenging semester” (McAlpine 2021). When students feel that their professors and schools are more understanding and don’t stigmatize mental health there is a greater chance that they will reach out for help, which could result in a better academic performance, and healthier more well adjusted adults. 

While the stigma around mental health is universal, it’s effect on college students is prominent and possibly greater than in any other stage of life. College students worry that due to their mental illness they will be looked at or treated differently by peers and faculty. Additionally, there is also a large lack of knowledge and information surrounding mental health especially on college campuses.  The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, a free and practical, online educational resource, states that colleges “have very limited clinical services and mental health personnel.” (Schlozman and Abdu-Glass), which results in “inadequate means of providing evaluations or therapy” (Schlozman and Abdu-Glass). Another eminent issue regarding mental health on college campuses is insurance limitations as many student health plans don’t have much support for providing mental health care. Furthermore, the majority of students, and surprisingly their parents, have very little knowledge on where to get help, such as on campus counseling centers.

There is a consensus among mental health professionals that the best way to combat this mental health epidemic on college campuses is through education. Students and faculty should have informational programming that highlights the issues at hand, and provides tools on how to navigate some of the challenges that will inevitably arise. Universities such as Kent State University in Ohio excelled in this aspect and even received the honor of being the one of the healthiest universities in the nation in 2018(Hopewell Therapeutic Farm 2019). Another way to implement education of mental health on campus is through student run campaigns and initiatives. This may be harder to establish since the stigma around mental health often scares off students who are able to organize such events, however, it is one of the more productive ways of battling the stigma and reaching fellow students. The objective for informational programming and general education on mental health should include definitions and explanations on different psychiatric problems.  This includes, but is not limited to, descriptions of what the mental illness may look like to an outsider, how the illness affects situations, and how people with mental illnesses interact with others. The programming should also include information on where to get help and counseling, as well as tips and tools on how to deal with stress, anxiety, the feeling of loneliness, ect.

Mental health issues need to become normalized in our society. A college or professor who showed insensitivity to a student’s physical disability or illnesses would be chastised, penalized or even potentially fired for such egregious behavior. The same standards are not held for students with mental illnesses. Such double standards are a perfect example of why college students today are reluctant to reach out or seek help when they are facing their own mental health challenges, which only exacerbates an already difficult situation. It is difficult for students to ask for help due to what their peers may think or say, even more so, when it comes to authority figures like professors and administration. Having fellow students make fun and dismiss one’s mental illness isn’t easy but it becomes much harder to reach out when it’s coming from adults who are meant to be role models for us.