To graduate from college requires balance — a tightrope walk toward success. But for some students, that wire becomes harder to cross.
About 75 percent of mental health issues manifest themselves by age 24, says mentalhealth.gov, a website run by the Health and Human Services Department. The problems those issues cause are being recognized by the Texas Legislature.
“We heard through this committee repeatedly that students, or young adults, are at a period of their life … that can make it more difficult to seek treatment,” state Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, chairman of the House Select Committee on Mental Health, said at a committee meeting in August. “And sometimes there is a huge stigma and resistance to seeking that kind of assistance.”
Advocacy groups, like Active Minds, try to reduce that stigma and provide information about mental illness. Students can create official chapters of the group at individual universities — and they should.
“There was no conversation about it out in the open, and I wanted it to change,” Asad Mustafa, president of University of Texas at Dallas Active Minds, told me in a telephone interview. “Average students don’t know what to do if they are struggling.”
Mustafa, a neuroscience sophomore, started the UT Dallas chapter this year to raise awareness and educate his fellow students.
At the University of North Texas, Aviana Arias, a junior majoring in social work, heads the Active Minds chapter.
Both university chapters are fairly new, and Arias and Mustafa describe quite different responses from their fellow students. Mustafa says he has seen a “surprisingly good response,” while Arias says it’s a struggle getting UNT students to care.
“People don’t want to talk about things that hurt,” she said.
But students who turn to their campus counseling services sometimes run into long waits, lack of information and understaffed centers.
The International Association of Counseling Services recommends a counselor for every 1,000 to 1,500 students. None of the major Texas universities meet that mark.
It’s not from a lack of trying — most of the universities have varied services available.
But schools are overwhelmed, and the programs get lost in the swell of rising enrollment.
So students trying to navigate the razor-thin wire and master college find their campus mental health services on the same tightrope.
How can anyone get from educational point A to educational point B when everyone is so intent on not falling?
“Compared to the rest of the country, colleges are quicker to see the need,” said Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director at The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that helps institutions build their mental health programs. “The challenge is that schools don’t exist to provide mental healthcare.”
Graduation is the goal of students, and the counseling services are supposed to be a tool to achieve it.
“We are not there in higher education just to provide mental health services. We are here to help students succeed academically,” Maggie Gartner, executive director of the Student Counseling Service at Texas A&M University, said during a Mental Health Committee hearing in September.
Other higher education professionals echoed that statement.
The first campus counseling center for mental healthcare was created 50 years ago. Each school is trying to figure out an effective operating model in an ever-changing environment.
Outreach and student-run groups like Active Minds can help, but they are not licensed professionals.
“We have to find the line,” Arias said. “We know all this great stuff, but we have to be students at the end of the day.”
Members of the Mental Health Committee seem adamant in searching for ways to help. Higher education institutions are adapting to individual campus needs, and some student groups are trying to help eradicate or at lease diminish the stigma of mental illness.
But these actions can’t be all of it.
More community mental health services should step in to help lift some of the burden of higher education institutions.
When the committee presents recommendations to next year’s legislative session, lawmakers must listen and give those recommendations some priority.
More students must get involved. If there is an Active Minds chapter on your campus, join it. If not, start one. There is strength in numbers.
Sara Pintilie is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.