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How to Address Mental Health Crisis on Campuses? An Interview With Ryan Patel

Colleges and universities across the nation are witnessing a rise in the number of students who report mental health illnesses. Nearly one in three presidents of public and private nonprofit four-year institutions and one in five presidents of public two-year schools reported hearing about students struggling with mental health issues once or many times a week.

Studies show that anxiety and depression are the top two mental health concerns as suicide rates among members of Generation Z, those born after the mid-1990s, has reached an alarming level.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, in 2017 suicide was one of the top leading causes of death in the country, claiming the lives of over 47,000 people. It was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, which includes the people enrolled in higher education institutions.

R. Ryan S Patel
R. Ryan S Patel. Photo: The Ohio State University

The College Post spoke to Ryan S. Patel, Senior Staff Psychiatrist at The Ohio State University, about the prevailing mental health crisis on campuses across the country and the ways to address it.

Q. What are the reasons for rising mental health issues on campuses?

Patel: Students face a variety of pressures including the influence of social media, financial stress, academic pressure, time pressure and pressure to have the “college experience”.  In addition to classes, it is not uncommon for many students to also have a part-time job, and or an internship concurrently, which places further demands on time and resources.  Over the past several years, many students have chosen majors that they may not be adequately prepared from high school to pursue; which can further impact college student mental health.

Many students are learning to live on their own for the first time and this transition with high-pressure factors may impact their mental health.

Due to a variety of societal level efforts at both middle and high school levels, students are less stigmatized against mental illness and are more open to seeking help than in previous years. This has also increased the number of students seeking out help for mental health concerns.

Q. Which racial/ethnic group of students is most likely to experience mental health issues and why?

Patel: Generally speaking, students from marginalized populations are less likely to seek out help for mental health concerns. This may be due to the stigma against seeking help for mental health concerns or lack of knowledge of resources available.

Q. As many students have taken loans to pay for their colleges, do you think that pressure of repaying back such loans and uncertainty about their future is also contributing to mental health issues faced by the students?  

Patel: Yes, students also feel pressure from the rising cost of college, student loans, feeling like the cost of their education impacts their family’s financial health, having to work part-time while in school, and uncertainty about the job market also influence student mental health.

Q. What are the symptoms that a professor or peers should lookout in students for mental health issues?

Patel: A variety of mental health conditions can emerge and evolve from teens to the 20’s age range. And as a result, professors or peers should be aware of behaviors or language that is out of the ordinary for the student.  Some examples include:

  • A drastic change in eating or sleeping habits
  • Withdrawing socially (e.g., not leaving his or her room, not going to class)
  • Change in energy or motivation
  • Inappropriate or exaggerated emotional reactions
  • Using alcohol/marijuana/other drugs
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Is tearful or agitated on the phone
  • A sudden drop in academic performance, especially for students who generally perform well
  • Feeling sad or appearing tearful nearly every day
  • Expressions of hopelessness, e.g., “What’s the point of trying?”
  • Direct or indirect statements about death or suicide, e.g., “What¹s the point of living?” or “I wish I were dead”
  • Avoidance of certain places or situations, or fear of being alone
  • Increased irritability or restlessness
  • Paranoid thinking or incoherent speech.

Q. Do you think that the stigma associated with mental health issues stops many students from seeking the intervention of a psychiatrist or a psychologist? What can be done to overcome this?

Patel: While many students are more open to seeking help for mental health concerns, much work remains to be done; given that less than half of the students with mental health concerns reported receiving treatment in the previous 12  months according to the ACHA-NCHA II survey.  At the campus level, outreach efforts by the campus community including faculty, staff, student body initiatives to provide information about mental health resources available on campus, education about mental health signs symptoms and treatment options can help overcome this stigma.

Q. What role do higher education institutions and non-profit organizations have to play when it comes to addressing mental health issues on campuses?

Patel: Just as students face mental health concerns for a variety of factors, campuses and non-profit organizations should consider a variety of solutions to address those underlying concerns. This multifactorial approach requires the involvement of faculty, university staff, student body and the community surrounding the campuses to develop a culture of care. And it may depend on the situation at a particular campus, available campus resources, and available resources available in the surrounding community.  For example, the solutions might look different at a small university in a rural setting vs a large university in or near a large city.

Q. What role can parents play in helping their child to cope up with mental health issues?  

Patel: Parents should know the following about young adults and mental health:

  • A variety of mental health conditions can emerge and evolve from teens to the 20’s age range.
  • Young adults are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors.
  • It is important for students to utilize appropriate resources to match their concerns so that their concerns are addressed in a timely and effective way; and this might mean resources outside of the counseling center, a campus partner office, or a community resource.
  • Look for signs and symptoms of mental health concerns in their child as described in the other question.
  • Increase their knowledge around young adults and mental health, as well as ways they can be supportive:

Q. What are your suggestions for college students who are facing mental health issues?

Patel: Students should not suffer in silence. There are many campus and community resources available to help students address their concerns.  While healthy self-care strategies such as healthy eating habits, adequate sleep, exercise, time and stress management can help; students should reach out to the campus counseling centers, student health centers, and other resources in and around campus depending on their concerns.  Involving your parents would also be a consideration.  It is important that students are proactive and seek help as a variety of treatments and resources are available.

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