This past fall, as students prepared for their first semester or quarter of the academic year, college campuses across the U.S. were arranging mental health services to deal with the increase in students with suicidal ideations.
It is laudable that the institutions, which are in charge of honing students’ skills, are also taking mental health more seriously especially when there is still a stigma surrounding mental health problems.
However, colleges are addressing an increase in students with mental health issues. Sometimes providing resources for students and sometimes kicking students out.
According to the 2014 annual report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State, nearly 31 percent of students have said that they have considered suicide at some point and 24 percent of students at colleges who sought counseling in 2013-14 had harmed themselves.
A report from Emory University found that more than 1,000 students kill themselves every year and, even with added mental health resources at campuses, addresing suicide remains the third-leading cause of death for people 15 to 24.
One of the questions facing many colleges today is how to stop the strain on resources while maintaining accessible mental health services for students that need them now more than ever.
An example is to create a drop-in center for students who don’t want to or can’t wait to see a mental health counselor, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which created a center after four students committed suicide within the span of a year.
Another example, and a rather inexpensive one, is to create a public awareness campaign on campus via social media to make sure that students know that they are not alone and that there is a community of peers and counselors who can help.
However, there’s another reason, besides lack of funds, that campuses might be reluctant to roll out more counselors and mental health centers for students.
On April 16, 2007 a mass shooting occurred at Virginia Polytechnic and State University. The shooter was Seung Hui Cho, a student who had a history of mental health problems.
Instead of asking what they could do for their students who dealt with mental health issues, colleges began to ask how they could avoid liability.
There has since been a strong administrative response across a number of colleges and universities to students who are considered at risk or harmful, whether to themselves or others.
Such as the case of Ian Smith, a student at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, who committed suicide after going to a counselor to get help for suicidal ideations, who was instead banned from campus grounds by college staff.
Or in the case of Yale University student Rachel Williams who was forced to withdraw from the college after she admitted to harming herself and having suicidal thoughts.
Students take it at face value that colleges will care. After all, why pay a thousand dollar price tag if a student isn’t going to receive food, education, gyms, and, yes, even mental health care. However, colleges are businesses and like most businesses, they want to make a profit.
Families of students who have committed suicide or students who are at risk of committing suicide can, and have, sued colleges, which hurt their bottom line. Such is the case of MIT student Elizabeth Shin who set herself on fire.
Shin’s parent’s sued the administration for $27.7 million. Other legal victories have been achieved for students with mental health issues, including cases at George Washington University and the City University of New York.
If colleges continue to be afraid that their own students might sue then they won’t be lining up to help students with mental health issues anytime soon.
Another reason that college administrators have responded so strongly to students who have confessed to having mental health issues is because they want to ensure that tragedies, such as the Virginia Tech massacre, don’t occur.
Colleges are responsible for the health and safety of all students, not just the ones struggling with mental health.
However, administrators who hide behind the excuse of avoiding another Virginia Tech massacre are overreacting by discriminating against students who are already dealing with issues and don’t need the added burden of being kicked out of school heaped upon them.
The Virginia Tech shootings were tragic, but murders on college campuses account for less than one percent of homicides. In fact college campus shootings are so rare that, according to the University of Virginia, the average college will experience a murder on a campus once every 166 years.
The rise of student suicides has meant that the time has come and gone for colleges to seriously reform the way they treat mental health. Colleges shouldn’t be worried about profit when what’s at stake are human lives.
Yes, some colleges are helping students who struggle with mental health by having longer counseling hours and making sure that students have resources available to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but until students are seen as human beings and not as liabilities there won’t be a healthy, positive change in the way colleges treat mental health victims.