Student groups aren’t just waiting for change in college mental health policy—they’re driving it
Last summer, when Northwestern University junior Allison Zanolli was mourning the loss of a sorority sister who’d taken her own life on graduation day, she turned to Facebook with her grief. Then she turned her sights on the university. It was not doing enough to help students with their mental well-being, she wrote in a Facebook post.
And when tragedy strikes—as it had four times that year—she felt the administration’s response to be inadequate and lacking in empathy.
“When a death occurs at Northwestern, we receive one email about it,” Zanolli wrote in her post.
“There is never a reference to the fact that Northwestern can be cold, can be lonely, can be a very big place to be scared and sad and feeling as though you have run out of options.”
When she returned to campus in the fall, she founded #BeWellNU, a student mental health initiative. The group conducted a student survey and presented the administration with the data and recommendations: improved psychological services, increased staffing, and greater transparency in its decisions and communications.
With #BeWellNU, a student initiative took fellow students’ isolated grief and consolidated it into action.
“It’s really hard as students to create change on an institutional level if you don’t have one unified voice,” Zanolli told The Daily Northwestern.
In the following months, the university president reached out to her, and the administration announced plans to hire two new counselors dedicated to emergent care and create a task force to address mental health on campus.
There have been nine suicides at Northwestern since 2013 and 14 at the University of Pennsylvania, figures that represent a snapshot of the growing crisis of mental health young adults in the U.S. Last year, a study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston concluded that one in five college students considers suicide.
While colleges and universities struggle to implement policies and services, students are frustrated by the pace of change—and awakening to the power of their voice in the process.
“Movements, social movements in general, are usually led by youth, so this isn’t a unique type of movement in that way,” says Laura Horne, director of college programs for Active minds, a nonprofit for student mental health. Active Minds was formed in 2003 as an organization to support and guide student groups surrounding issues of wellness on campus, and now sponsors 550 chapters around the country. “We’ve seen first-hand the power of student-led efforts that have resulted in tremendous change in terms of campus climate and attitude toward mental health.”
Student organizing has reached beyond campus climate and attitude to target tangible improvements, and groups are challenging administrations to make changes in a range of ways—from increasing counselors and reducing wait times for appointments to raising limits on the number of appointments allowed per year. At Cornell, a student-led Mental Health Task Force delivered a report to the university president outlining proposed actions to improve Cornell’s mental health services.
Many schools—including the University of Michigan, Georgetown, and USC—saw the launch of peer-to-peer counseling to supplement what their classmates were (or weren’t) getting from CAPS. Students at UCLA established a physical location to focus peer-taught wellness and prevention—a mental health “toolbox”—including workshops on yoga and mindfulness in one of the student commons. And student governments at schools like Indiana State and University of Nevada are even asking for increases in health fees to subsidize extra counselors.
Efforts to make initiatives like these come to fruition can be difficult to sustain; student leaders graduate out of rotation every four years, and momentum is naturally interrupted by the cycle of midterms, finals, semesters abroad, internships, holidays and summers. Yet all it takes is the smallest spark to get it going, especially in the age of social media. At the University of Maryland-College Park, for example, the catalyst for student action was as complicated and simple as a perfunctory, overly formal email.
When You Can’t Go Home
Last April, University of Maryland junior Faye Barrett called 911 in the middle of the night. She was having a panic attack and concerned she might have taken her prescribed muscle relaxer incorrectly. She spent the rest of the night in the hospital calming down, preparing to be discharged and go back to her dorm for more restful sleep.
Then an email from the school appeared on her phone.
The letter from Residential Life informed Barrett that she wouldn’t be allowed to go to her room—or any other on-campus housing—until she had met with a university psychiatrist and a Resident Life case manager, and they had “made a decision regarding [her] ability to return.”
The letter specified that “finding alternative lodging off-campus will be required” until both meetings had been completed.
“I have concerns about your ability to successfully manage living in a residence hall,” the letter read.
As a freshman, Barrett had been treated for anxiety and depression, and more recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The cold formality of the letter hit her like a threat.
“It takes strength and bravery to get help for a mood disorder,” she told the student paper, “and instead I was punished” for calling for help. Barrett spent a tearful night at a friend’s off-campus home and wasn’t cleared to access the clothes or food in her own apartment until a day later, after she’d completed the mandatory meetings.
She shared the letter via social media and word spread on campus, where students had already been lobbying for improved services at the psychological center. For more than a year, a group calling itself SPARC (Scholars Promoting and Revitalizing Care) had been trying to engage the administration in a dialogue.
Founded by Anthony Sartori, a College Park Scholars senior, SPARC wanted to address the wait times at CAPS to receive psychological care—as much as 30 days.
They’d launched a social media campaign (#30daystoolate) to collect input and experiences fellow students had had with CAPS, says Sartori, then sent a letter filled with suggestions widely throughout the administration and community, but didn’t get a response.
So on Valentine’s Day, they delivered roses to the president with the letter. And the conversation began.
When Barrett’s lockout experience gained attention, the conversation broadened: Can the university design communications with empathy in mind, not just liability fears? Can the policy of re-entering the dorms be reassessed? And how about creating a counseling center on the North Campus—where the freshmen are, who often need it the most—as well as South Campus?
The door was open, but Sartori felt the conversation never really took hold. When the time came for the annual campus Do Good Challenge—an event where groups present projects that would benefit a social need—SPARC entered, and won $5,000 as one of the six finalists.
“We donated half to Residential Life to train one of the new case managers in Mental Health First Aid, a national program with an eight-hour training about how to help someone in crisis,” says Sartori, who has now graduated and works in the Maryland mental health industry.
“Because of that, they’ve gone on to train over 100 Resident Advisors.”
Leading From Within
RAs have long been the soldiers on the front line of the mental health crisis in higher education. Living in the dorms 24/7, they are up close and personal with freshmen and privy to their sometimes-rocky transitions.
At Georgia Tech, junior Meghan Dietrich is an RA, and was so moved by the state of mental health on campus—two suicides in one week last year, and four attempts in five days (“and those were just the ones I knew about”)—that she made it the basis of her interdisciplinary project for her biology major.
“We do have resources—counseling centers, hotlines, peer and online platforms. Why aren’t people using them if they’re in a state where they really need help?” she said.
“We saw an interesting statistic. Tech students were asked in a survey if they felt they’d be perceived differently if they reached out for help, and about half said yes, there’d be a stigma. But only 10 percent said they’d look at someone else differently for getting help.”
These and other questions were on the agenda when Georgia Tech students founded, and hosted, the Intercollegiate Mental Health Conference in February.
A gathering conceived and organized entirely by students, IMHC was held with students and administrators from other colleges, including Duke, the University of Michigan, UNC, UCLA, and Stanford.
The event was the brainchild of Collin Spencer, a junior biology major who’d founded the Mental Health Student Coalition the year before, after he identified what he called a sense of “shared despair” in campus pressure and perfectionism.
“Efforts tend to focus on developing and implementing internal solutions. As such, Tech has isolated itself from the local and national mental health community,” Spencer wrote in an article for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January.
“This mental health crisis is not unique to Tech, yet we have not collaborated extensively with outside experts or institutions. We are potentially reinventing the wheel while effective solutions may already exist at other institutions.”
The main purpose of the conference was to collect and share best practices on mental health—what’s working, what isn’t, and why.
One of the best secondary aspects of the conference, Dietrich recalls, was simply meeting with students and administrators at other schools where the pressure is likewise intense.
“I went from being number one in my class to a college where everyone was first in their class. There are high expectations, and you want to be the best. Chasing that standard of excellence takes away from putting your own wellbeing first,” she said.
“But you’re not going to be able to take care of yourself academically if you don’t take care of yourself personally.”
The call for self-care is nothing new, but it’s taken on added meaning and urgency in recent years: Between 2013 and 2016, depression diagnoses among those 18 to 34 increased by 47 percent, according to a report from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation.
But this is also a time period in which the conversation about mental health became far more open—diminishing the stigma, and increasing the likelihood of students seeking help.
“We don’t know exactly what’s led to this place,” says Laura Horn of Active Minds. “But there’s a lot of data out there we can use to piece together a number of factors.”
For starters, Horn notes, students with existing mental health issues are getting into college in higher rates than in the past—and thanks to advances in services and treatments, are able to attend.
Then there’s technology—social media and smartphones put constant distractions and anxieties right in the palm of the hand, amplified and seemingly inescapable. It might be facile to blame parents, but helicoptering and snowplowing are proven to have detrimental impacts on the coping skills in young adults.
And pressure; high school performance and college admissions are at more competitive levels than ever before, and grinding away with too many commitments and too little time for meals and sleep is a dark badge of honor.
Throw in the reality that some students are dealing with food, housing, or job insecurity, and you have quite a cauldron of simmering anxiety.
“When you look at basic necessities, the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you have food, shelter, clothing and sleep at the base of the pyramid. You have to address these things before you can move up to the levels of taking care of social relationships and mental health,” says Carly Stewart, a UCLA graduate student working toward dual master’s degrees in public health and social work, and a representative on the university’s Mental Health Committee.
As part of her degree internship, she serves as a counselor in the community.
“If you’re swamped and you can’t even sleep, how are you going to utilize self-care and take advantage of psychological services? Fellow students can appreciate that pretty well.”
Partnership or Provocation?
Student leaders at times play a provocative role on campus, pressing administrators for change—more, further, faster. Caution, costs, and liability tend not to be the issues of their wheelhouse.
And yet their urgent energy fuels the motivation to get things done, because their clock is always ticking, their semester calendar and time on campus both short, finite.
Their help on the ground is undeniable. Initiatives like peer-support networks, RA training, campaigns to raise awareness, and mindfulness breaks are especially welcome when the demand for mental health services rises to a clamor at a school with 40,000 students. College counseling centers might well need to increase their staffing these days.
But if the number of students wanting frequent private counseling continues at this pace, schools will never be able to meet the need. It’s not a problem they can hire their way out of.
“You hear the rhetoric, ‘The administration isn’t doing anything,’ but that’s incorrect. On the Mental Health committee, you see they’re really trying,” says Stewart.
“A lot of blame is put on the administration, but when you break it down, what does that really mean? Whose responsibility is it to make sure everyone’s ok? Students have a role in that too. There are complaints that there’s a lack of awareness about what services are offered and why they’re useful, and that’s on us, too.
“The whole community—faculty and administrators and students. Our responsibility is to spread information about the help that is here, and get people to use it.”