Twice a month I trek to one of the two counseling centers that my university runs. I sit cross-legged on an armchair and discuss how my anxiety and depression have been since the last time I was in that spot. I used to go twice every other week, but due to the influx of students needing services, I’m not allowed to.
Instead, once a month I go in for my two thirty-minute sessions. In the session with my psychiatrist, I simply answer the standard questions—what percent of the time do you feel anxious, have you wanted or thought about committing suicide—then get my weight taken before I’m out the door. In the session with my therapist, I talk about whatever I want for roughly twenty minutes before she tells me I seem to be doing great and sends me on my way.
My university isn’t alone in not providing adequate services for those with mental health issues. In a survey done by the National Alliance on Mental Health, only 14 percent of students found their college to be very supportive regarding mental health issues.
Here are five ways that colleges can begin to provide better support to students struggling with mental illness:
1. Publicize accommodations more widely across campus.
It took a year into seeing my psychiatrist before she told me I could receive an accommodation from the Office of Disability Resources for my anxiety and depression. I was surprised. I spent three years of my undergraduate life believing that accommodations were only for physical or developmental disabilities, not mental. But, it turned out that if I wanted I could get accommodations allowing excused absences for my depression and extensions on assignments/tests for my anxiety. Publicize accommodations for mental illnesses more widely across college websites and at college orientations.
2. Increase duration and availability of mental health services and support.
Last year my college put in thousands of dollars into redoing the basketball gym to include a ticket window and a concessions stand. The year before, they put in thousands to create a third dining facility, which no one actually goes to because the food sucks and the hours are worse. Instead of funneling money into superfluous upgrades, the university could be channeling those thousands of dollars into better counseling services—extended evening and weekend hours, more trained professionals, and better technology for scheduling appointments.
3. Provide peer support services and peer-led groups.
One of the most beneficial things for students struggling with mental health is the idea that they are not alone. Support from others like them in similar situations sometimes helps a great deal. Peer-led groups, or support services, can be just as effective as counselor-led groups. In many colleges, where students are majoring in psychology to go on to become therapists, peer-led services would provide them with valuable experience in leading therapy activities and support.
4. Create “safe space” locations on campus.
Sometimes people just suddenly need a good cry. I could be sitting in finance learning how to calculate the present value of a loan and my anxiety hits me with the tears following close behind. There is nowhere to go besides the bathroom in these situations, and even there, no one wants the stigma of being the kid crying in the bathroom. Universities could benefit from “safe spaces” in campus buildings, places where students can go when they need a quiet place during panic attacks or overwhelming anxious thoughts. These “safe spaces” don’t have to be more than a room with dim lighting, comfortable seating, and soundproofed walls.
5. Offer after-hours texting/phone support.
My university counseling center offers little after-hours support. There is a peer counseling hotline available Sunday-Thursday 8 PM to 1 AM and an after-hours emergency counselor line; otherwise that is the extent of after-hours support. From my own experience with the after-hours emergency counselor line, the extent of support is to recommend a Philadelphia hotline number or a recommendation to go to the nearest emergency room. Colleges should offer more after-hours support for their students, including the ability to text an on-call counselor. Some students find it hard to physically speak while they are having a panic attack or their mind is racing with anxious thoughts. The ability to text an on-call counselor would allow a student to receive support in a comfortable, helpful way.
If your university’s counseling services don’t provide adequate support, don’t be afraid to voice your concern and desire for better support. Comment below with your suggestions for how universities can better provide support for students struggling with mental illness.