It’s been nearly 15 years since Congress passed the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act (GLSMA) in 2004, in response to the suicide of Senator Gordon Smith’s son Garrett Lee a year earlier, while attending college in Utah. He was 22. The bipartisan supported Bill recognized the growing mental health crisis on college campuses and created and funded programs to address mental health in the young, including a Campus Suicide Prevention program. Since then, the GLSMA has bolstered campus mental health and suicide prevention programs across the U.S.
Today, the evidence shows that America’s postsecondary institutions are recognizing the need for greater mental health awareness and ensuring that staff have the resources they need to support students. In 2016, the majority of college counseling centers reported an increase in funding from their universities. Schools are enhancing important mental health resources like 24/7 crisis counselors and online therapy assistance, as well as other approaches, like therapy dog sessions and other wellness oriented activities. Other campuses are partnering with non-profit programs, like the Jed Foundation, which provides participating schools with a framework to better equip schools to help solve mental health issues.
And more and more, faculty and students are taking another crucial step in building a more supportive environment for students experiencing mental health issues by raising awareness and working to end the stigma. This is an important evolution at colleges across the world that must be celebrated.
However, it is clear that more can be, and must be, done.
While mental health resourcing has increased at colleges across America, so too have student enrollments and students seeking mental health services. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that while enrollment grew by 5.6% between 2009 and 2015, the amount of students seeking mental health services increased by 29.6%. There was also a marked increase in medication, hospitalizations and suicide attempts between 2010 and 2016.
Anxiety and depression continue to be the biggest mental health issues afflicting students. Between 2011 and 2016, undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” rose 12% from 50% to 62%; overtaking depression for the most common reason for students to seek counselling services. The American College Health Association recently reported that nearly 37% of students declared they were “so depressed that it was difficult to function” within the last 12 months. This data represents a significant recent increase in mental health issues and service needs on campuses.
With increased student demand for mental health services and an insufficient supply of therapeutic resources, more and more professors are stepping up to plug the gaps. As Slate reports, some schools are offering faculty development programs and training instructors to recognize symptoms and to assist students in crisis. While the training is beneficial, it is unsafe to assume this model can effectively substitute for professional therapy and support services.
While schools must get better at ensuring sufficient supports are available, they must also ensure they’re collecting data to better understand and prevent the consequences of significant mental health events, like suicide. In early 2018, the Associated Press’ annual suicide statistic survey revealed that nearly half of the largest public universities in the United States are not tracking student suicides –an omission that makes it harder to adapt campus policy and save lives.
Ultimately, it is clear that while schools are taking steps to address student mental health, more must be done if we’re going to solve the crisis on our campuses. School faculty and management must continue to work to ensure sufficient mental health services are available to meet student needs. Students must continue to fight to end the stigma around mental health issues and assist classmates that are in need. Together, we can help build an educational experience that is safe, supportive and leaves no one behind.