You can’t get very far from the top of a NASPA conference agenda, or an issue of The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, The Atlantic, or The New York Times, for that matter, without encountering the issue of mental illness and its impact on our campuses and in our communities.
We have all seen the numbers, the charts with lines ascending radically from left to right as incidence rates among college students increase year after year, even as so many of us are devoting more and more resources to the problem. Demographic trends that show these rates increasing in today’s high school and middle school students can make things feel even more daunting.
Of course, the numbers fail to capture the human cost, the fear and worry when someone is struggling with mental illness, let alone the heartache families and friends suffer when a student succumbs to severe depression, psychosis, substance abuse, or addiction. And let us not forget that the challenges of stress, anxiety, depression, privation of purpose, meaning, and connection, not only impact our students, but many of us and our colleagues as well.
To complicate things further, as the demand for high-quality mental health services increases, the cost of those services rises. Many of us are finding it difficult to hire and retain licensed clinicians. And we’re not just looking for “resources” – as we endeavor to partner with more clinicians of color and those with expertise in trauma-informed work and experience serving marginalized and minoritized students, we find that the demand seems to exceed the supply.
And yet whenever we convene as a group of student affairs professionals to engage in open and genuine discussion about even (especially) the most complex issues, of which mental illness is certainly one, it becomes immediately clear to me that we have the potential to transform this problem into an opportunity.
The capacity for creative problem-solving among those reading this post and the many others with whom we all have the privilege to work is undeniable, and it is inspirational. I genuinely believe that as we face the challenge of mental illness on our campuses, we have what it will take to accomplish something revolutionary, that students who struggle can learn to thrive, on and beyond our campuses, and that we can convert our own stress and busy-ness into professional and personal fulfillment and joy.
We need to stop chipping away at the edges, hoping that a little more of what we’ve already been doing will finally tip the scales and get students back on track. We need to put our heads together and roll up our sleeves to explore the root causes of this mental health crisis in higher education, which of course is at least to some degree a microcosm of the same problem in society at large.
I am not suggesting that we ought to stop treating symptoms, but rather that we can no longer allow our sometimes-frantic efforts to react to crises to prevent us from deepening our understanding of what is at the core of the issue, and developing effective, proactive solutions. What if we were to make a concerted effort to adopt health promotion practices in novel, data-driven ways? What if we were to collaborate with clinical training programs, not just by hiring residents, but through intentional partnerships that build pipelines from the ground up? I don’t pretend to have an answer, and there is almost certainly a range of plausible and promising approaches. This complex problem is an opportunity, a way to address today’s problems and to pay it forward.
I don’t imagine I have said anything here that is novel for any of you; rather, my goal is writing this missive is to provide a spark for a different kind of conversation, one that just might allow us to take an alternative path, for the sake of our students, our colleagues, and ourselves.