How mental health is affecting students and the resources that are available to help
story paige palmer   design grace stark    photo shamina merchant

Walking to class, students pass a post-it note assuring me to “keep on going”; leaving class, students see a REACH certification training advertisement; and before they head home, they hear other students discussing guided meditation through an app called Headspace. Upon noticing one of the items, it’s difficult not to notice the others, almost in a domino effect. The more students look, the more they see mental health awareness spread throughout The Ohio State University’s campus.

          It doesn’t take much to realize that this is a campus that is becoming increasingly aware of the issues that can come with adjusting to life at such a large university. It’s impossible to walk around campus and not notice that the way in which we discuss, think about and work to x mental health issues is changing. From 2009 to 2015, the number of students visiting university counseling centers across the country, such as Ohio State’s Counseling and Consultation Service, has increased by 30 percent, while total enrollment has increased only 6 percent, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.

         

          A study by the American College Health Association also found that in 2017, 40 percent of college students had felt so depressed in the last year they could not function, and 61% had experienced overwhelming anxiety. These numbers are staggering, and the effect can be felt throughout campus. It begs the question—how have things gotten so much worse in just a short period of time?

          “[The] generation that’s in college now has been living fast, hectic, very busy lives,” said Dr. Micky Sharma, Ohio State CCS Director. “And I don’t just mean when you got to college. Back to elementary school, middle school, high school, all the way through: everything goes very quick.” 

          As colleges like Ohio State become more competitive, students are forced to take on busier schedules along with additional extracurricular events, athletics, student groups, volunteering and much more. Sharma suggests that because of these more hectic schedules, there is less time in the life of a student to learn valuable coping skills. This, combined with the constant connectivity that comes with living in the smartphone age, can all come to a head upon arriving at campus, and cause issues on a scale that no generation before has faced.

         

          “I don’t think students just come to Ohio State and become anxious,” Sharma said. “I don’t think this is just an Ohio state thing, I think this is about the generation, the world, how society has changed people growing up.”

          Universities across the country are struggling with many of these same issues. Counseling services are more in demand than ever before. As mental illness is destigmatized, students are more willing to seek out help. Isabella Kwai at The Atlantic suggests that “beneath the statistics, the rise in demand for

counseling-center services suggests a heartening prospect: that concerned parents and students …help[ed] make visible people who might have otherwise suffered in silence.”  Universities are trying new approaches to connecting students to services, such as UCLA’s free online depression screening and Virginia Tech establishing ‘satellite’ counseling centers off-campus, in places like coffee shops where students are already spending time.

          Sharma says that the directors of these large-scale counseling operations are often in touch with one another, and share best practices in all possible ways they can. So what is Ohio State doing specifically to help solve the issue?

          A comprehensive Suicide and Mental Health Task force at OSU recently completed its recommendation report, which outlines some of the steps the university hopes to take in order to improve mental health services of all varieties. One of the largest and most difficult solutions is creating a campus-wide Culture of Care.

         

          “That means the entire Ohio State University community, faculty, staff, students,” Sharma said. “That’s saying if we really want to be a mental health friendly environment, it can’t all be about CCS, it can’t all be the Office of Student Life, it has to be everybody.”

          Administrators aren’t the only ones tackling the issue either: Undergraduate Student Government President Shamina Merchant and Vice President Shawn Semmler are leaders in improving student mental health resources across campus and are helping to bring together students and staff to create systems that work better for everyone.

          “We’re lucky because within USG we have access to a number of administrators,” Merchant said. “We’re able to talk to them about more long-term solutions.” This includes solutions within CCS, but also through the university-wide solutions that students are less aware of, such as STAR counseling through the Wexner Medical Center, or the Psychological Services Center.

          “All we care about and all the students that want help cares about is getting help, and that can look like 

a lot of different things,” Semmler explained. “It’s important to let them shape what help looks like to them...We have many siloed units, and the short-term conversation is how do we let students navigate them.”

          In this instance, an online triage model is being considered for the near future, where students can answer questions online and then be presented with the options that would be best for them, based on different mediums (online, over-the-phone, or in-person) and wait times. Looking even further ahead, these different units might communicate with each other, so students can move from one service to the next based on their needs, without having to start at square one every time.

          Students aren’t often aware of the sheer number of options available to them, as many resources simply aren’t advertised the way CCS counseling is. Even within CCS, there are underused resources, such as a variety of drop-in workshops that students can attend any day of the week, no sign-up or paperwork required.

          Merchant notes that, “It’s difficult for even us to understand, and I spent 4 or 5 months on the task force...I don’t even completely know how it works, so how do you expect a student to come in and know exactly where they’re supposed to go?”

          This triage model is only one of many solutions currently in the works, as USG and the university work to hire more staff, centralize access points, promote day-to-day student wellness and educate students to be more supportive of their peers.

          Within each of these points, there are short-term solutions, such as the posters in the parking garages, better messaging and advertising of resources within the OSU app, or pushing for students and faculty to become REACH certified, a training to improve skills to help and reach out to peers and students who may be in need or at risk. Additionally, there are longer-term solutions you can expect to see within the next year, as USG works in creative partnership with the guided meditation app Headspace, which has a student tailored membership package that focuses on creating good mental health habits, and tackles student specific challenges. Another item on the roster is the “Warm Line,” which can provide non-emergency support for students who wish to talk to a local peer versus an adult who could be hundreds of miles away.

          “I don’t think the answer is just one thing,” Sharma said. “I don’t think the answer is just add resources, that’s a significant part of it, but it comes back to that culture of care and how do we get everybody involved?”

          Ohio State already has a bounty of resources—both for preventative and emergency measures—to help students get the help they need. There’s no easy fix to improve mental health on cam- pus, but it seems that now, more than ever, there is buy-in from students, faculty, and administrators to start making changes for the better. Creating a culture of care, where people are open about mental health and

their own personal stories, are aware of resources, and know how to take care of their own mental well-being, is something every individual must help foster.

          Whether that’s joining one of the many campus organizations that help improve campus mental health, completing REACH training, or simply meditating 15 minutes a day to clear your head, every one of us can improve our own mental health, and that of others, by taking time to care about our fellow Buckeyes.