While most describe their undergraduate college experience as a time of growth and freedom, others remember the stagnation and isolation that accompanied their untreated mental health condition. In college, the opportunities to meet new people and explore career interests are as exciting as they are daunting. For those with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological conditions, these opportunities turn into obstacles without the aid of old friends, family or professional counseling. While Occidental and other institutions may believe they are beginning to enact change, public service announcements and small mental health programs are inadequate to curb the growing prevalence of psychological conditions on college campuses.
Senior Director of Student Wellness Services Sara Semal and Director of Psychological Services Matt Calkins hosted a school-wide town hall Feb. 15 reviewing the current mental health services offered to Occidental students at Emmons Wellness Center. Much of Semal and Calkins’ presentation highlighted the ways Emmons is meeting the student body’s needs through ideas such as weekly counseling sessions, campus support groups and a 24/7 nurse helpline to assist those with physical or psychological issues. Although Emmons facilities are partially assisting students with mental illness, the presentation included some worrying statistics on student usage of these on-campus health facilities.
According to Semal and Calkins, the typical Occidental student with a mental health issue needs between four to six sessions per year, yet there is an alarming spike in the number of students who require 20 or more. Within this group, certain individuals require daily therapy to manage anxiety, stress and suicidal thoughts. Although Emmons would like to offer these students multiple sessions per week, understaffing and a lack of funding from the Board of Trustees created three-week waitlists for counseling sessions. Due to growing demand for these facilities, individuals have been forced to self-manage their conditions or seek outpatient care that can cost up to $200 per session.
Every year, college administrations across the country use events like orientation week to create supportive, interconnected college campuses. But some students still find themselves socially isolated. For those unable to find an empathetic group of friends to rely on, they are forced to endure the rigors of college on their own. This loneliness, alongside the stress of schoolwork, can form new psychological problems and worsen conditions in those who already have them. Due to this, mental health professionals across the country have noticed that more students require their services. At Occidental, the usage of mental health facilities has grown from 11 percent of the student body seeking support during 2009–2010 to 23 percent in the 2016–2017 year, according to Emmons data from the town hall.
One factor that contributes to this statistic is the prevalence of sexual-assault-induced PTSD on college campuses. According to the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center, nearly one-third of sexual-assault victims develop PTSD following the incident. Considering that one in four women are sexually assaulted on college campuses across the country, it’s easy to understand why nearly a quarter of college students require access to mental health services. While victim support groups are necessary for creating a community of compassion and awareness, the group therapy structure removes individualism and can reinforce the stigma around mental health and sexual assault.
During the town hall, Semal and Calkin expressed an interest in improving their health facilities by moving towards a digital connection platform, but they should take it further and implement an online therapy system accessible to all students. On this digital platform, students could retain the anonymity of traditional counseling sessions while receiving low-cost treatment on their own schedules. While this system could be implemented via school-wide subscription, it can also be used as an individualized, “pay as you need it” type of therapy. In theory, this weekly check-in system could revolutionize mental health treatment by providing all students, regardless of their health coverage or socioeconomic status, PsyD and PhD-level counselors. Instead of Emmons providing a list of local therapists and a counseling session once every three weeks, this platform would help reduce extended waitlists and give students the help they need without fear of social or economic stigma.
In 2013, the University of Florida implemented such a service called Therapy Assisted Online (TAO). University of Florida officials noted that TAO users experienced greater relief from their symptoms when compared to students who received on-campus mental-health treatment. Moreover, while students resorting to in-person care faced waitlists over two weeks long, TAO eliminated multi-week waitlists. While this system is by no means a cure to mental health issues, it is a step that Emmons and Occidental should take to ensure the stability of students’ day-to-day lives.
Mental health concerns everyone; even if you haven’t personally struggled with mental health, you almost certainly know someone who has. The continuation of Occidental’s inaction is inexcusable not only to the well-being of Occidental students with mental health conditions but also to the vast network of people who could potentially be affected. With tragedies related to mental health occurring nearly every year, Emmons is obligated to improve mental health access to ensure a healthy student body.
Oliver Spirgi is an undeclared first year. He can be reached at [email protected]