The prevalence of mental health problems on American college campuses is alarming. In a national survey conducted by the American College Health Association, 40 percent of male students and 50 percent of female students reported “feeling so depressed that they had difficulty functioning one or more times during the last school year.” College students face a myriad of stressors. We must achieve the perfect balance of dedication to classes, extracurriculars, jobs, internships and friends. We worry about student loans. We worry about careers and post-graduate life. Given the weight of the college experience and the tremendous pressure to not flounder in it, it is not difficult to understand why so many students suffer psychologically. Eradicating this issue will not be an easy feat, but it must begin with a conversation on society’s destructive cultural attitudes toward mental health.
Negative societal perceptions of mental illness are deeply rooted in history. During the Middle Ages, mental illness was associated with witchcraft. It was believed that mentally ill individuals were influenced by the devil, and they were punished rather than treated. While cultural attitudes have thankfully evolved, progress still must be made. Modern society makes a clear distinction between physical and mental illness. Physical conditions are less likely to carry social stigma and thus conversations about treatment and recovery occur more publicly. Mental illness is usually not met with these same affirmations of legitimacy. Government policies reflect this view. During financial crises, mental health care budgets are typically among the first services to be cut. Medicare, which provides unlimited coverage for inpatient treatment at a general hospital, only covers inpatient care at a psychiatric hospital for up to 190 days.
Mental illness is regularly coupled with shame. Speaking openly about depression or anxiety is considered relatively taboo, and this dangerous stigma can discourage people from seeking help. At NYU, students in need of mental health services have several options. Our Student Health Center offers a 24-hour Wellness Exchange hotline, counseling, psychiatric medication services and informative workshops. Despite the availability of these resources, many students may not feel prepared to disclose their personal condition and seek help. A 2012 National Alliance on Mental Illness survey revealed that fear of stigmatization is one of the top reasons students choose not to disclose mental health issues. There are more students quietly suffering instead of utilizing the services available to them.
Raising mental health awareness should be a priority on college campuses. Minimizing the importance of the problem does not help anyone. NYU requires all freshmen to go through an online alcohol education program — creating a similar program for mental health education could foster a greater understanding of these illnesses. We must use education to combat the stigma around mental health, especially on college campuses. Only then will we begin to reach the many students who suffer silently.
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Sept. 25 print edition. Email Zahra Haque at [email protected]