Treating the Stigma

Brian Cherny

In light of the recent presidential election, concern about mental health issues has once again become a focus on college campuses nationwide. On Wednesday, November 9th, the day following the latest US presidential election, President Mike Fitts of Tulane University sent an email to the university stating, “I want to remind you that CAPS [Tulane’s Counseling and Psychological Services], while very busy with scheduled appointments, will welcome any student who is in crisis on a walk-in basis.” President Morton Schapiro of Northwestern University issued a statement to his students reminding them that, “Several organizations and offices on our campus already are offering opportunities to reflect on yesterday’s election and to offer support for members of the community.”

While mental health issues have recently been put in the spotlight again, they are not just a new phenomenon on college campuses. When asked about the prevalence of mental strain on college campuses, one former Tulane University student commented, “With the heavy workloads of college students it is hard to maintain a consistent level of mental health. This is not a new issue…” Tulane University Undergraduate Student Government (USG) President Autumn Gibbons agrees, as, “[Mental health] affects every single student in an individual way.”

According to Dan Robinson, a Tulane student  and a leader on campus in the effort to raise awareness about mental health-related issues, “There is a 22-day waiting period on average for someone to be seen… People usually get four sessions so everyone can be seen.” The three week waiting period can be bypassed, however, for crises. One student, who went through the protocol at Tulane, exclaimed, “I got really lucky that I only had to wait to days to get in because some people have to wait weeks or months [to see a professional].”

At colleges in the United States there is one mental health professional per about every 2000 students, which is 8x the recommended ratio of 250:1, as proposed by the American Counseling Association. Since nearly 30-40% of all college students will see a mental health professional during their college career, this equates to each professional handling roughly 200 cases at a time. To put these numbers into perspective, if the recommended ratio of counselors to students was met, each counselor would handle 25 cases at a time as opposed to the currently approximation of 200 cases.   

One of the main issues hindering schools from attacking mental health head on is funding. When asked about why CAPS is undermanned, President Gibbons responded, “[CAPS is] underfunded simply because there’s too much demand and not enough resources… If we were to vote all of our fiscal responsibility to mental health it would deplete any university’s budget, simply because mental health is such a necessity and such and as important part of any student’s experience on campus.” However, she has done her best to ensure that no issue goes unaddressed. President Gibbons has a person on her cabinet with the title “Director of Health and Wellness”, whose sole responsibility is to, “Run a committee focus[ed] solely on mental health and wellness.” Therefore, even if the university doesn’t have the funds to ensure professional services are readily available to every student, there will be some form of nonprofessional, yet still helpful, assistance available.

While hiring more counselors seems like it would be a logical option to help diminish the prevalence of mental health issues on campuses, it’s not that easy. It’s too often overlooked that universities are institutions and assume a certain level of risk treating their students in-house. Dan Robinson says, “Hiring more counselors increases [the university’s] liability, while handing [a counselor] a list decreases liability.” He compared it to, “Playing a game of legal hot potato,” where schools want to take care of their students but if they unsuccessfully treat them then all blame can and will be traced back to the schools. Therefore, Dan says the best way to describe school-offered therapy as, “[It’s] not really therapy, it’s crisis management.”  Schools use the terminology “short-term solution oriented therapy” to demonstrate their dedication to helping their students but at the same time doing the best to avert liability away from themselves.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, the biggest problem that society faces regarding the combating of mental illness is that it is often viewed as a weakness as opposed to a condition.  The invention of social media has helped to decrease this stigma. Still, even with mass media at our sides our community still looks down upon mental health issues. USG President Gibbons says, “The biggest problem that the university faces is eliminating the stigma behind [mental health issues] and helping students feel comfortable stepping forward and seeking help.” Tulane University is doing its very best to motivate students to seek help. They try to make mental health prominent around campus, and have gone so far as to require mental health care information be included on each and every course syllabus. They also send out emails to help the student body stay healthy, including one sent on November 14th, 2016 with the subject line Free Workshop On Thursday: Navigating Stress. This email was intended for those, “feeling especially anxious and nervous,”, and contains information regarding a free workshop led by stress expert Betty Brown, PhD.

Another option to address mental health issues that is attractive to schools from a finance, liability, and student standpoint is to keep students mentally healthy and happy without ever reaching the point of needing professional help. During the CAPS individual and group counseling sessions, therapists suggest alternative methods for people to relieve their stress. A CAPS representative said, “Mental health is everything… Going to [the gym] could be a support system and it’s individual. Walking through Audubon could be helpful. Our campus offers a wide arrange of resources and opportunities that are mental health resources that someone may not think of specifically… If an individual can find stability in drawing, the art studio is a resource.”

Another department of Tulane’s faculty, the Wellness Center (WELL), focuses specifically on encouraging students to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The WELL runs campaigns such as giving out condoms and tampons and preaching healthy eating, drinking, and studying habits. They also do their best to keep stress down throughout students’ daily lives; the WELL runs a petting zoo on Tulane’s academic quad during finals season, and has even brought the occasional camel to campus to celebrate Humpdays (Wednesdays). A current Tulane student said about the WELL’s petting zoos, “[The petting zoo] relieves stress for students…It’s something that’s just out of the ordinary to take the student’s mind off of what they are doing.”  

There are also many student-run organizations on Tulane’s campus focused on raising awareness about and treating mental health issues. A student who has been through the mental health protocol at Tulane boasted, “[Tulane offers] huge amounts of resources. They definitely try to help us out.” The two largest student-run organizations on Tulane’s campus aimed at bringing awareness to mental health issues are the NAMI and Active Minds. According to a 2015 Hullabaloo interview with Rebecca Roth, one of Tulane’s ambassadors of Active Minds, “[Active Minds] creates an open and comfortable atmosphere on campus working to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health issues.” Active Minds also recently held The Celebrate Mental Health Arts & Music Festival on Tulane’s campus, with the slogan, “Mental health is a topic we need to start celebrating, rather than stigmatizing.” Their efforts to, “build an atmosphere where students are comfortable discussing topics such as mental health,” have led to them grow from a small, undermanned organization to one of the larger student organizations on Tulane’s campus in just two years.

NAMI, on the other hand, is, “the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness,” according to their website. While they work in conjunction with Active Minds to eliminate the stigma behind mental illnesses, they are also a large national organization that facilitates meetings and courses for anyone interested to help them deal with their mental illnesses. At the 2014 NAMI Annual National Convention, singer/songwriter/actress Demi Lovato said, “It’s my mission to share [my struggles] with the world and to let them know that there is life on the other side of those dark times that seem so hopeless and helpless. I want to show the world that there is life – surprising, wonderful and unexpected life after diagnosis.” ( Amy Marie, a former “[NAMI] Peer to Peer support person” had this to say about her NAMI experience, “It was a wonderful experience that I’m very glad I had.”

As unfortunate as it may be, there is simply, “no way [universities] can win [when it comes to mental illnesses].” Mental illnesses are always going to be an issue on college campuses, and no matter how many resources a university devotes to the fight, there will always be more that can be done. However, the help of student-run organizations is a huge asset for colleges because it supplements their efforts without placing extra liability upon the school. It’s a thin line to walk, because if the university gets involved with the organizations at all, the liability falls back upon their shoulders. Therefore the best they can do is to keep on focusing on student wellness to help prevent future incidents.