A Student Mental Health Bill of Rights: What's Needed?

Three ways we can support college students with depression

College provides both great opportunities and great challenges. Aside from the rigorous academic expectations posed by higher education, many students find themselves grappling with a different set of obstacles in the form of their mental health and genetic conditions that can make obtaining a degree much more difficult. These challenges can cost people the education they deserve and have fought for, and, in the worst of situations, their lives.

How can we provide support for those struggling? Three elements that are crucial on any campus are counseling services, academic accommodations, and social support from fellow students. They should be included in a student mental health bill of rights.

Counseling Services

College counseling services are arguably the most important aspect of any campuses commitment to students’ mental well-being. They are the hub of all things mental health on campus and they offer crucial services, such as onsite counseling. The professionals who work in these offices are specifically experienced and trained to help students cope with academic and family challenges common among students, and they can go a long way.

While leading NAMI on Campus at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, I saw firsthand how much good these services can do and how committed the people within them are to helping the student bodies they serve. Our faculty club adviser Kerry Patton, director of health and wellness, knows just how important these programs are.

“First, it is important to be knowledgeable about the resources at the university,” she told HealthCentral in an email interview. “We need to understand the services that can be provided to students, such as counseling and the health center in addition to the academic supports.”

While these centers have been extremely helpful to countless students, they are also notoriously overwhelmed and under-supported. “Counseling centers at colleges and universities struggle with managing the need of students’ mental health needs,” says Patton. This problem is widespread.

Data from around the country indicate counseling centers are struggling to keep up. An annual survey from The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors(AUCCCD) found that the majority of these programs are forced to employ waitlists for students seeking counseling. At colleges with enrollments greater than 15,000, the average number of students on waitlists exceeded 50, and the average was as high as 70 for institutions with enrollments of 30,001 to 35,000. These waitlists can be unbelievably detrimental, especially in an environment like college where suicide is the second leading cause of death.

Three elements that are crucial on any campus are counseling services, academic accommodations, and social support from fellow students. They should be included in a student mental health bill of rights.

However, it is easy to understand the reason behind the waitlists considering the AUCCCD found the average university has one professional counselor for every 1,737 students. In my opinion, these deficiencies cost the lives of thousands of bright young man and women. As a society, we need to recognize the importance of counseling centers in college and the lives they save.

Academic Accommodations

Academic accommodations are also crucial to the success of students. These programs help students with learning disabilities and other impairments keep up with their course load, offering academic assistance like extended time on tests, the option to test in a separate quiet environment, and permission to record lectures. These measures are meant to help those who are struggle with traditional learning techniques, and are crucial for addressing the key issue with modern education: there is no one way to measure potential. The metrics used to grade and rank students are often only a small facet of their ability, especially in many fields where creativity and out-of-the box thinking can be a major asset.

There is significant data today that suggest what we often consider disabilities are simply differently oriented minds. In her book "The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius," psychiatrist Gail Saltz explains that those same brain differences that cause disorders such as dyslexia and autism can lead to more creativity and artistic abilities, more empathy, and an ability to visualize things in a different way.

In an article from CNN written about her findings, Saltz says that she found that many of the people who have pioneered the way forward in our society have had learning disabilities. Example? Dr. Beryl Benacerraf, a clinical professor at Harvard University who developed a genetic sonogram that changed down syndrome screening during pregnancy. There’s also Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Charles Darwin.

Critics of these programs question the efficacy of such accommodations, but data show that they are enormously helpful and encouraging to struggling students. A study published in the Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy found that schools had a major effect on self-worth and personal potential for students with learning disabilities. College is an environment in which they learn how society works and whether they can succeed or fail, often setting them on a path for life. Students who were encouraged and supported had a higher sense of self-worth and personal accomplishment throughout their lives.

This research supports Dr. Saltz’s findings that “disabled” students can have lives of extraordinary personal fulfillment and professional success when encouraged and supported adequately. It is crucial that we continue to adjust our ideas of potential and education by offering these accommodations to students who need them. If we don’t, we may be casting aside the very potential and uniqueness that moves our society forward.

Social Support

As with any group, social support from one’s peers is one of the most important elements in college life. Whether or not you feel accepted by your classmates plays a major role in how you relate to your environment.

In the past and still very much today, many students have felt isolated by their mental health status. That isolation can have disastrous consequences, including suicide. As a community, part of the responsibility falls on fellow students to create an environment where people feel like they are accepted for who they are. This is a sentiment that has been stressed many times across countless social movements. Today it is crucial that support is lent to those who are struggling with their mental health on campus.

Thankfully there are already several peer-to-peer programs meant to lend support to fellow students who are struggling with mental health concerns, ranging from homesickness to grief. These peer programs are becoming more and more prevalent. A 2016 report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) found on-campus mental health awareness campaigns make a real and observable impact on student populations and that, as these campaigns expand their outreach, a growing number of students seek the support of campus mental health services.

If you are a student who is suffering, please make use of these programs, or even consider pioneering them yourself on your campus. It is crucial that we support fellow students on their path to a better life. In the process of making a difference, you can find or create a community that encourages others and yourself to be all you can be. You can help create a much-needed student mental health bill of rights.

Peter Chlebogiannis
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Peter Chlebogiannis

Peter Chlebogiannis is a marketing coordinator with Remedy Health Media. He served as president and founder of an on-campus branch of National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) at Quinnipiac University and was a founding student club leader on campus at Westchester Community College before that. Trained by NAMI in mental health first aid and social support techniques, he advocates for mental health awareness both on campus and off.