May 3, 2007

Student Mental Health Problems Rise at C.U.

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The tragedy at Virginia Tech has put the entire college community on edge. Although it is clear that this incident was isolated, it has raised important questions about the prevalence of high stress and depression on college campuses.

In an interview with Cornell’s President David Skorton last week on mental health, he addressed the importance of these issues.

“I am very, very concerned about depression, pressure on campus, suicide, homicide, violence; it’s an enormous issue,” he said.[img_assist|nid=23367|title=Ample Advice|desc=Pamphlets line the walls of Gannett Health Clinic offering advice to students on a number of topics.|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=69]

According to a recent study completed by Kansas State University, mental health issues like those described by Skorton are becoming increasingly prevalent on college campuses. The study indicated that since 1994, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students seeking help for depression and suicidal thoughts. Greg Eells, director of Cornell Counseling and Psychological services, said that these trends are apparent Cornell as well.

“We’ve seen a doubling of people coming in for counseling over the last ten years,” he said, “but we’ve doubled our staff size as well, so we’ve tried to keep up.”

The question then, is whether mental health issues are actually increasing, or if students are just more willing to seek psychological help.

“It’s hard to know whether the increase in demand is about increased stress, or is about increased knowledge in campus [about mental health services] and [their] de-stigmatization,” said Matt Boone, interim assistant director of CAPS.

“While there have been claims that mental health problems among college students are on the rise, the data is not consistent,” said Tim Marchell, director of Mental Health Initiatives and the Council for Mental Health and Welfare, “[But] we do know from surveys that there are many students who experience significant levels of stress for which they don’t receive help.”

So what can universities like Cornell do to help combat these problems? Aside from increasing the staff size of CAPS, Cornell has been trying to implement other ways in which students can have access to counseling and support if they need it.

“I think Gannett is at the forefront of these issues,” said Boone. “[We have] eight staff members devoted to outreach and nine ‘Let’s Talk’ sites where you can walk in without paying a fee. Those staff members conduct those walk-in hours as a way to engage people who wouldn’t usually come into counseling,” he said.

Gannett has also been working to make faculty members and students more aware of what the warning signs of mental health problems may be.

“We are educating faculty and staff and students how to recognize issues…[and] helping them understand what are the indicators that might suggest that a student is having a problem. We [also] provide online mental health self-assessments on our website,” Marchell said.

There are also lots of places that Cornell students can find support on campus outside of CAPS, if they need it. Empathy and Referral Services, a peer-counseling group, is another resource for students if they want to talk but feel that they do not require a therapist.

“Not all issues are therapy issues,” said Alice Green, director of the EARS program. “If you have a breakup with a significant other, it’s a normal life passage, it may not require therapy but it may require some support and reflection…I really hope that people who come to EARS will see that some issues that don’t require therapy can really benefit from just talking with someone.”

There’s a lot of talk about Cornell being an especially stressful university. While it is clear that workloads can get heavy, there may be other reasons why Cornell students feel so much pressure.

“If you look at national college health assessment surveys, Cornell tracks right a long with other schools. However, I think if you look at people’s perceptions, there is a cultural component of Cornell that [says] you’re supposed to be stressed here…There are things about Cornell’s structure, it’s size, being a teaching institution that add to that perception of stress,” said Eells.

“There’s a long standing tradition of talking about how stressful it is here,” said Marchell. “[In some cases] talking about how stressful it is may even add to the stress.”

It is because of these problems, many mental health professionals agree, that it is important to relax at places like Cornell.

“[It’s important] to just notice that we have a this culture of pressure and be brave enough to say ‘I’m going to try to relax and I’m going to try to bring that to whoever I encounter’,” said Green, “You can be clear and intelligent and successful and not carry that atmosphere of driven-ness.”

Nevertheless, the University is trying to ensure that there are always counseling alternatives if necessary.

“For those who are experiencing stress that is interfering with their ability to function it can be important to seek help from professionals or peers,” said Marchell. “And similarly I would say for those of us who may be aware of someone else who’s undergoing significant stress its important that we reach out to those individuals…All of us need to play a role in making Cornell an even more caring community.”Student Mental Health Problems Rise at C.U.