A Call for Reform: Student Mental Health on College Campuses

by Kathleen Goodwin

There are many bitter and hopeless thoughts that have plagued me since the night that Wendy Chang took her own life in her Harvard dorm room in April 2012, just 34 days before she would have graduated. However, it wasn't until this past January, when Madison Holleran, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, committed suicide in Philadelphia, that I have felt compelled to organize these thoughts to understand what may have prevented these horrifically tragic deaths. Madison was a varsity track runner at Penn and was reported to have a loving family and many friends. She was also so remarkably beautiful that no news source reporting on her death could help but comment on it. Wendy and I were both part of a close-knit student organization and having known and worked with her, I can attest that she was among the most gregarious, creatively talented, and vibrant human beings I have ever encountered. The hundreds of Harvard students who attended Wendy's filled-to-capacity memorial service all voiced similar sentiments describing her uniquely magnetic nature.

In the immediate aftermath of Wendy's suicide, I blamed the environment at Harvard that seemed to value our accomplishments over our happiness. However, when I had my own episodes of anxiety and depression in the year following her death, it was the presence of my roommates, friends, and a few exceptionally helpful university administrators who prevented these issues from spiraling out of control. While I may criticize American colleges for not doing enough to support the mental health of students, I realize that colleges, including Harvard, offer an invaluable opportunity for development within what can be a supportive community. However, many colleges today are failing their students who grapple with mental health issues. Numerous require or compel students who admit to suicidal thoughts or serious mental illness to take a leave of absence, or even to formally withdraw. Most colleges claim that they are not adequately equipped to help students with mental illness and implicitly suggest that it is not their responsibility to provide resources to mentally ill students, especially when these may be diverting resources from students who are “well”. I argue that, on the contrary, it is the direct responsibility of these institutions to create a campus environment where students struggling with mental illness can be supported.

Mainstream media has recently latched on to the idea that the four year residential college system is unrealistic. Colleges are often described as “pressure cookers” and “hotbeds of binge-drinking” that are not worth the exorbitant investment. However, I maintain that the opportunity to learn and grow in a bounded setting between childhood and independence is ultimately invaluable. Tuition fees certainly need to be lowered and financial aid programs expanded, but residential colleges themselves should not be abolished. Rather, colleges should take more responsibility for allowing their students to grow, not only academically, but also emotionally, and be prepared for the serious challenges that many students may face when trying to mature into full-fledged adults. I believe colleges have the distinct ability to nurture intelligent, hard-working young people with or without mental health issues and create a more productive student body and society at large.

Wendy and Madison's suicides are the kind of events that stagger a campus—they spark discussions and impassioned calls for change. How could these two incredibly gifted and effervescent women, whose accomplishments and Ivy League educations foretold successful futures, take their own lives? From an outside view, it seems impossible that Madison and Wendy couldn't have realized how loved and admired they were, and how fortunate they were to have had the entire world, quite literally, at their fingertips. In the days following her death the Harvard community repeatedly questioned why someone like Wendy, who possessed too many friends to count in every corner of campus, would want to end her own life. Wendy, who belonged to a long list of diverse and respected student organizations, seemed exceptionally successful at everything she tried in a manner that most students can only dream of. Similarly, Madison the all-star student athlete who seemed to be achieving perfection academically and athletically with ease, ended her life after just one semester at Penn.

The unfortunate reality is that mental illness afflicts without discrimination and regardless of how allegedly bright a future may be, many young people struggle with fatally dark thoughts. Too often the people around them don't realize the depth of this problem until it's far too late. While Wendy and Madison's deaths are encouraging an impetus for reform on their respective campuses, it may not be enough for the silently struggling students whose needs need to be addressed immediately by the institutions they attend.

There is a disconnect between the college admission offices that choose high schoolers based on the potential they see within them as college students and eventual contributors to society, and the college administrators who ask these same students to leave campus when they admit to struggling with mental illness. Young people are selected to attend these institutions based on their minds and yet when these minds become sick they face far more barriers to care and healing than if they contracted a virus or broke a leg. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 1 in 4 Americans have experienced symptoms that meet the criteria for a mental disorder in the past year and 3 out of 4 chronic mental illness sufferers experience onset by age 24. Causing the NIMH to conclude, “Mental disorders are really the chronic diseases of the young… unlike heart disease or most cancers, young people with mental disorders suffer disability when they are in the prime of life, when they would normally be the most productive.” On college campuses specifically, over 30% of nationally surveyed students admitted feeling depressed in the last 12 months and almost 50% felt “overwhelming anxiety”. In much the same way that colleges anticipate the majority of students to suffer at some point from the common cold and mononucleosis during their four years on campus, they should expect a substantial incidence of mental disorders among the student body. If a student is not a danger to others and still wishes to attend classes and participate in campus life, then why would colleges not allow them to try to overcome their mental illness in a community of peers, with the benefits of tangible structure and expectations?

Despite overwhelming evidence regarding the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population, there is still incredible stigma, and even ignorance, surrounding such disorders. Both students and college administrations should take it upon themselves to reform universally negative attitudes toward mental illness. However, it seems that in many cases college environments are contributing to the continued silence surrounding mental illness. A number of students have come forward in both intimate and public forums about the difficulty of admitting to mental health struggles. They speak of worrying it is something that no one else is experiencing during their years in college, which are expected to be unequivocally happy and fulfilling. One Harvard student wrote in an email to friends about her lifelong battle to conceal her mental illness:

“Harvard is a place that demands perfection, and I think that that pressure makes us reluctant to share anything about ourselves that isn't perfect. We're hesitant to talk about ourselves in a genuine way — to talk about how we're actually doing, to talk about our successes and our failures…”

She courageously goes on to admit to being diagnosed with multiple mental disorders both before and during her time at Harvard, in the hope of igniting a much-needed dialogue on this issue. The culture she describes is, in my own experience, entirely accurate and conversations with friends, as well as editorials from various college newspapers, confirm that there is a cultivation of “perfection” that masks mental health struggles among college students nation-wide.

While the high pressure environments of modern colleges undoubtedly exacerbate the symptoms of some mental illness sufferers, they are still communities that offer unparalleled support networks for young people. Students themselves need to become comfortable admitting to mental illness and seeking treatment, but it is even more vital for colleges to provide an accommodating and inclusive framework for those students who admit they are struggling. On the contrary, a number of the U.S.'s most prestigious universities have been criticized for their policies regarding undergraduate students with mental health issues. In a widely circulated piece in the Yale Daily News, one student reveals a frightening course of irreversible events when she told her resident advisor that she had experienced suicidal thoughts and admitted to cutting her leg. This student was asked to leave Yale and had to reapply a year later in order to regain her spot. She writes, “Those of us who have admitted, at some point or another, that we are legitimately not okay, have learned that there are real and devastating consequences of telling the truth. Because Yale does not want people who are not okay.” The sense of rejection and alienation that colleges project on students when they are suspended from campus for admitting to mental illness only perpetuates the silence and stigma that surrounds mental health issues, and in many cases results in entirely preventable tragedies. As one New York Times article noted, “Of 133 student suicides reported in the American College Counseling Association's survey of 320 institutions last year, fewer than 20 had sought help on campus.” In a 2013 article in USA Today, a Brown student tells the story of classmate Okezie Nwoka, who was banned from campus after he was hospitalized for a manic episode while at Brown, then initially denied readmission. The article goes on to cite a discrimination complaint filed against Princeton University on behalf of a young man who attempted suicide and was subsequently forced to “voluntarily” withdraw as a student.

The negative impact of these incidents are suffered not only by the individuals who experience them but also the wider student body who witness what happens to students who come forward with their mental disorders. While there are resources for students suffering from less severe mental health issues, students fear admitting to any sort of mental illness because of both stigma among their peers and ostracization by the college itself. In the weeks following Wendy's death, I felt compelled to present a “perfect” façade, even as I was consumed by pain and confusion. I helped plan her memorial service and the necessary and immediate phone calls, emails, and meetings allowed me to ignore these feelings for months. I cried for Wendy at the designated times but I was calm and focused on logistics during the remaining hours of the day. The following year, when I had my own experiences with anxiety attacks and depressive episodes, I feared discussing this with my friends, family, and Harvard administrators, because it would destroy the image of competence I had worked so hard to maintain throughout college and a potential recommendation of a leave of absence would have prevented me from graduating on time. I hesitated to be honest with myself and others, even though the rational part of me was aware that avoiding treatment is precisely the reason that full-fledged mental disorders and suicidal tendencies develop. While recovering from this period wasn't quick or pretty, the people I eventually reached out to listened to me and legitimized my experience. Ultimately, they all helped me to recover before my symptoms worsened. Thus while many students, myself included, experience entirely treatable forms of anxiety and depression or other mental health struggles, in some cases their symptoms become increasingly severe because they avoided seeking treatment at a point that would have prevented the suffering and danger of acute mental illness.

I ask that both the colleges mentioned in this piece and those everywhere do their best to understand that the best way to prevent the suicides that rock their campuses each year is to embrace the inevitability of mental illness within their student populations and try to treat these illnesses on campus to the best of their abilities. The culture of silence surrounding mental illness, perpetuated by both students and college administrations, must be lifted. Resources certainly exist, although those could also be improved, but students will not seek them if they believe that admitting to mental illness is shameful and they fear being permanently excluded from their college community.