The College Mental Health Crisis: The Need for More Faculty Training
When I started teaching on a college campus in 2010, I was thrown right into the fold. At just 22 years old, I was hardly older than my students, but had to look and act older and more authoritative to effectively run my classroom. For a while, pencil skirts, makeup, and high heels did the trick, but in my second semester of teaching, two separate events shattered the illusion of my readiness for leadership.
First, while doing an in-class assignment, one of my students fell to the floor and had a seizure in the middle of my classroom. I had never seen a seizure, and had no idea how to help. The second thing that happened was that one of my students was struggling emotionally; she was prone to outbursts in class, and would often pull me aside after class to talk to me about everything she was going through in her home life. This particular student was older than I was, and I felt disastrously helpless trying to support someone in her situation.
My lack of life experience certainly didn’t help, but it was ultimately my lack of training in both medical and mental health first aid that made these situations worse for both myself and my students. Both students, I think, felt betrayed that I didn’t respond correctly to their respective emergencies; certainly, I would handle both differently today.
But the fact that I was thrown into being a figure of authority over other adults with absolutely no medical or mental health training has always bothered me. Were I a K-12 teacher, wouldn’t I have received proper medical certification and mental health training? Why should it be any different just because adults are in my classroom?
College instructors should be trained to handle such emergencies, and not just on their own time and on their own dime. It is neither a requirement nor an expectation of a college instructor to attend training or to be certified in any kind of first aid. After all, we teach adults who are responsible for their own medical care.
But what if an emergency happens in the classroom? Who takes the reins? In a room full of young adult students who are unlikely to be trained, the responsibility falls on the instructor.
When it happened to me, and I was suddenly tasked with caring for a student having a seizure, it wasn’t me who actually knew what to do. It was a student in class who happened to be an EMT. Without that student there to help, I would have been completely alone in that responsibility, and I don’t want to think about what could have happened. When I was faced with a student dealing with depression and suicidal ideation, I also didn’t know what to do. What if she didn’t end up finding the resources that she needed on her own?
The Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses
The importance of supporting students experiencing a mental health crisis has become more apparent in recent years.
According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, 52.7% of students on college campuses reported feelings of hopelessness and 39.1% of students reported being severely depressed. To compound this, 94% of counseling center directors on college campuses report that the number of students on campus with “severe psychological problems” has been continually increasing.
Specifically, rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise. The most recent survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors reports that 58.9% of students who visit college counseling centers have anxiety, making it the top mental health concern for the eighth year in a row.
Why is anxiety so persistent among college students? According to the JED Foundation, it has a lot to with all of the lifestyle changes that college students experience, as well as the way that college shapes identity, or alters previously held beliefs. Alongside the usual stressors — writing papers, taking tests, picking a major, loud roommates, financial difficulties — college students face the task of developing their identity separately from their family. They may grapple with things like belief systems, sexuality, and finding a new friend group.
This is further complicated by the prevalence of alcohol use on college campuses, which can exacerbate existing anxiety and depression, or introduce new stressors, such as poor academic performance, lack of sleep, and deteriorating health.
This is a complicated issue with many catalysts and complications that are unique to the student population on our college campuses today. So, how can we begin to address it?
Schools Are Increasing Mental Health Resources for Students
Luckily, with the increasing rates of mental health issues on college campuses, institutions are responding by offering more resources. Counseling services are becoming more widely available, and schools are offering improved services on campus, as evidenced by a 43.3% increase in staffing in counseling services last year.
While this is promising, many universities remain understaffed. Some have to impose a limit on how many counseling sessions each student can have, and students may experience long wait times for an appointment. For a student in crisis, this model may not work.
Another interesting way that colleges are responding is with the inclusion of crisis phone numbers and texting lines on university ID cards, including the number to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, (800)273-TALK, to ensure that they are readily available for anyone in crisis. More and more universities are jumping on board with this, including mine, which will offer the new ID cards starting this coming fall.
If students are struggling with mental health, or simply find that talking with a counselor helps them manage their stress levels, the best thing to do is to familiarize themselves with what services their particular campus offers and take advantage of them. Every college does things differently, but there is almost certainly something available for those who need help. Searching for “counseling services” or “psychological services” on the university’s main page is a great way to start.
More Training Is Needed for Faculty and Staff
But what can faculty and staff do to help alleviate this problem?
For much of my teaching career I’ve felt ill-prepared to help my students who are suffering with their mental health. And, believe me, I’ve been reminded of the prevalence of such concerns countless times. Although there is certainly still a stigma surrounding seeking out mental health care, I’ve found that mental health has become more of an acceptable part of daily conversation, especially with today’s students.
Despite assumptions to the contrary, college students today are actually more self-aware about their psychological needs. Pop culture would have us believe the new generation of incoming students are fragile and unequipped for adult life, but, in fact, the growing demand for psychological services mentioned earlier may actually indicate that students are more comfortable seeking out care for their mental health. Hardly a day goes by in my classroom where the topic of mental health doesn’t come up in some form, either in discussion itself, or from talking with a student.
Since students talk about mental health more often, and seek out treatment more, it’s only fair that we know how to respond and support them when they reach out. My caveat, again, is that universities don’t usually require mental health training, and often don’t financially support faculty who choose to pursue training. This is a reality that will hopefully change as mental health services expand on campuses.
However, the good news is that one form of training, at least, is relatively cheap and accessible: Mental Health First Aid training. This eight-hour course is offered by Mental Health First Aid USA and is designed to help you identify and respond to mental health emergencies in much the same way that you would administer medical first aid to someone who has been injured.
I was lucky enough to take this course through a certified instructor at my university’s Counseling and Psychological Services, and my department covered the cost. The importance of what I learned through this training can not be understated. It covered everything from recognizing signs of depression and substance abuse, to appropriate addressing trauma, to what to do if you believe someone is contemplating suicide.
That last thing — about what do to if someone is suicidal — is something most of us don’t want to think about, let alone have a plan of what to do. So, this was the first time that I’ve had to confront the reality that I may have to address it someday. One of the most uncomfortable moments of the training session was when our instructor asked us to pair up and practice asking each other “are you contemplating suicide?” in a direct and nonjudgmental way, which is a necessary step if you are assisting someone exhibiting suicidal behaviors, which I did not know beforehand.
I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to do, and each of us teared up when she asked us to imagine that our partner was a loved one, who needed to be asked that question without any sign of judgment in our voice. We did it over and over again until we got it right.
This course made such an impact on the way that I negotiate mental health in my daily life and in my classroom that I strongly recommend anyone to check if a class is offered near you, and to sign up immediately. It’s a small step that we can all take toward improving mental health conditions in our communities and in our classrooms.