SJR Column: Mental Health, January 2020
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 19.9 million students are attending a college or university in the U.S. this year, including students pursuing both undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Illinois Springfield. Most people think of college as an exciting time of learning and growth – a time to become more independent and develop skills for a professional career.
But for many students, college is also a challenging life stage that can include significant mental health challenges.
In fact, a recent post on the Higher Education Today blog reported more than one in four students have expressed issues with anxiety, three out of 10 struggle with depression, and one in 20 have created a suicide plan in the past year.
Research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports 20 to 36 percent of college students exhibit “serious psychological distress” while only one-third receive treatment.
How campuses can best respond has become an important discussion across the country, including at the University of Illinois where a system-wide summit on the topic is planned for later this year. I recently had an opportunity to discuss student mental health with staff and faculty who are among those at the forefront of this issue every day at UIS.
Dr. Bethany Bilyeu, a licensed clinical psychologist, is director of the UIS Counseling Center. The center provides outreach, counseling and psychological consultation to students as well as resources for faculty, staff and parents.
“Anxiety and depression are the most prominent mental health concerns we see at the Counseling Center,” Bilyeu says, “with many students showing symptoms of both conditions, which makes it more severe.”
“We also see more students who talk about trauma and abuse they have experienced,” she continues, “with the Counseling Center often providing the first opportunity for them to take independent action to address the impact of those experiences on their own mental health.”
According to Bilyeu, with the size of the freshman class continuing to grow, her first priority as director of the Counseling Center is to “get in front” of all incoming students, providing introductory sessions for both students and parents to ensure they understand the services offered. With professional staff available or on-call 24 hours each day, students can schedule an appointment or even drop by the center and be assured they will be seen.
Unlike many other campus counseling centers, there is no waiting list and no limit on the number of sessions available. With both individual and group counseling offered, students’ needs are constantly and reliably addressed.
Brian Kelley, director of Residence Life at UIS, is responsible not only for day-to-day operations of residence halls, townhouses and apartments on campus but also for programming that enhances student well-being.
“Even for students living in the same room, social isolation can be a problem that leads to anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns,” says Kelley.
“Residence Life staff are trained to engage with students and to recognize early warning signs so that we can intervene to help before those symptoms negatively affect students’ success.”
“Mental health has become more OK for students to talk about so more students are seeking care,” he says, “but Residence Life staff play a critical role in both prevention and referral – helping students develop healthy lifestyles, improve coping skills, recognize signs of trouble in themselves and others, and get help when help is needed.”
Dr. Frances Shen, associate professor of psychology, is a counseling psychologist who, in addition to teaching and research activities, directs a peer mentoring program for the Capital Scholars Honors program.
“Anxiety and depression among college students mirror an increase in those diagnoses in the general population,” Shen says, “while substance abuse and eating disorders, as well as financial challenges and the pressure to succeed also contribute to mental health concerns among the college-age population.”
“Some students are more at risk than others for mental health challenges,” she adds. “First-generation students, those from underrepresented minority groups, students from low-income families, students with disabilities and international students are among those who may be more at risk.” In addition to the Counseling Center, students from underrepresented groups also find support through the Necessary Steps Mentoring Program, the Office of Disability Services, the Diversity Center, the Office of Advising Services and affinity organizations that bring students together who share interests and/or backgrounds.
Bilyeu adds parents and family members can take proactive measures to help ensure their student’s positive mental health. Maintaining a positive relationship is Bilyeu’s No. 1 recommendation – whether it’s via text messages, phone conversations or periodic visits, most students benefit from maintaining contact with their families. Parents may also need to back off on expectations for perfection and, rather, encourage students to do their best, seek help early if needed, get involved with campus life and maintain their physical health – all choices that can ultimately help students maintain positive mental health.
Personalized attention is a defining feature of the UIS student experience. With staff and faculty like Bilyeu, Kelley, Shen and many others contributing their expertise and experience, supporting student mental health is an “all in” approach at UIS.
The goal is to see every student benefit from their college experience and, ultimately, walk across the commencement stage to receive their University of Illinois diploma.
Susan J. Koch is Chancellor at the University of Illinois Springfield