As I watch seemingly happy, healthy students return to campus to start the fall semester, I cannot help but wonder what troubling emotions may be behind their beaming smiles. My curiosity is supported by the American College Counseling Association's recent survey finding the emotional health of incoming freshmen at a record low.
What troubles these young people in the prime of their lives? The National College Health Assessment last year found the most traumatic situations involve academics, finances, and intimate relationships. The analysis found that half of the students had feelings of hopelessness, and nearly half felt lonely and overwhelmed with anxiety. In their quest for finding help, more than 30 percent had received mental health services at some time from counselors, psychologists, or therapists.
This decline in emotional health has many effects on trends on college campuses, including increasing concerns of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. A study by Johns Hopkins Children's Center published last year in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that depression and lack of social support appeared to precipitate suicidal thoughts and behavior in some college students. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-age students in the U.S. About 1,100 deaths by suicide occur in this age group each year.
The good news is that, in the age of shows like "Dr. Phil," kids today are less stigmatized by mental health issues and are more likely to get help. Still, the economic reality these days is that, nationally, counseling centers on college campuses are not always staffed to do direct outreach, so some of the most troubled students may not be reached.
At my college in suburban Baltimore, we are beefing up the number of people on campus capable of spotting someone who may need mental health services. We are encouraging staff, faculty, and students to take Mental Health First Aid, a unique training that teaches people how to help someone with the signs and symptoms of mental illness or experiencing a mental health crisis. In an average lifetime, people are very likely to come across someone in an emotional crisis.
The innovative training uses role-playing and simulations to demonstrate how to assess a mental health crisis, select interventions and provide initial help. The training, brought to the U.S. from Australia in 2008 by the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, Missouri Department of Mental Health and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, also addresses the risk factors and warning signs of specific illnesses like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and substance-use disorders.
Having people on campus trained in Mental Health First Aid is proving to play an increasingly larger role in helping to manage anxiety about mental health issues. Coming to the aid of someone who may be going through an emotional crisis on campus can be everyone's responsibility.
"The fact is, we encounter people every day who may be having a mental illness or who is in an emotional crisis—this training shows you how to help them," says Lea Ann Browning-McNee,
deputy director for Mental Health Association of Maryland. "Mental Health First Aid emphasizes that mental illnesses are very real and very treatable."
The reasons why people don't reach out for help remains a powerful force. But with the help of Mental Health First Aid and a culture of care and compassion on campus, we are taking steps to create an environment on campus where it's OK to ask for help.
—Kim Leisey is Associate Vice President for Student Affairs at UMBC (Md.).