Expanded mental health services: higher ed’s next campus growth opportunity?

A recent Texas Tribune article reporting increased University of Houston student use of mental health services as indicative of a national trend creates uneasy anticipation that our nation’s ongoing spate of tragic mass shootings may soon be used as justification for expansions of university mental health services and, of course, increased taxpayer funding (for public schools) and/or new tuition hikes.

Per College Addresses Growing Need for Mental Health Services, 47 percent more students came to the UH campus counseling center in September 2012 than in September 2011.  Dr. Norma Ngo, the director of Counseling and Psychological Services, says the trend is not unique.  “I think you could ask any counseling center director across the nation,” she said. “And they will tell you there are more students coming in and there are more students coming in with more severe psychological issues.”

So if indeed more college students are afflicted with more and more serious mental illness than ever before, questions arise.  For starters, is this true?  And if so, why?  Next, are college campuses truly appropriate venues for identifying much less potentially treating mental health issues?  And the spoiler question of if this a real problem or a manufactured crisis?  Asked differently, an exploitative opportunity to capitalize on public fear and grow the size of educational institutions under the guise of academic support or student services?

A 2011 survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors is cited as asking, “Do you believe that the number of students with severe psychological problems on your campus has increased in the past year?” with 70+ percent responding affirmatively.  As a follow-up, 92+ percent reportedly answered positively to if “the number of students with significant psychological problems” are a growing concern in campus centers or on campus.

Many of today’s 21 million or so college students are of the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” era.  With many of these kids pre-dating “the uninsured” as a trendy political issue, their early lives offered pregnancy information along with access to pre-natal care as accessible for many if not most who wanted it.  That’s not to say everyone took to heart the healthy pregnancy opportunity, but many did and also saw to their children receiving routine medical treatment.

Nonetheless, in addition to new physical threats like diabetes, the last decades have seen skyrocketing diagnoses of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) along with the treatment of children at younger ages for depression and other anxiety disorders.  These conditions aren’t limited to the “economically disadvantaged” as K-12 school personnel, psychology practitioners and other traditional medical personnel seem to offer equal opportunity in handing out diagnoses and their often drug-related treatments.

So is today’s new mental illness upswing real or contrived?  Nature or nurture?  Is it linked to early childhood use of brain-altering drugs?  Chemically-laced food and other nutrition factors?  Access to video games?  Or our “anything goes” mode of American family life where marriage and acknowledging children along with parental responsibilities is optional while continuity of sibling relationships is often based on short-term, often-changing familial structures?

The concept of domestic stability has certainly been redefined as these flex-family configurations bring routine residential changes that often limit bonding in school, neighborhood or community environments.That said, even more intact, less fluid households find their members often struggling to keep up with the daily pace and expectations of today’s family life.

Some would say taking God out of our daily home life and classrooms has further disrupted social stability.  Regardless your religious persuasion, a generally sense of moral stability arising from basic principles like the Ten Commandments and Golden Rule has declined in concert with personal responsibility.

Today’s higher education system is seen as flawed and in need of major reform.  Campuses face dismal graduation rates for students totally outside their academic leagues or others cruelly pushed toward collegiate coursework when vocational or technical training was far more appropriate.   Add to the mix long-term financial debt for those who fall short of earning a diploma along with those paying premium prices for degrees of both questionable employment marketability and academic credibility.  And for many, the best case scenario offers a bad economy making the most viable degrees no guarantee of commensurate employment explaining the current number of degree-carrying low-wage earners.

A generation raised to believe “everyone gets a trophy” may indeed find mental and emotional stability a challenge in light of today’s realities.  With record numbers of American high school graduates being funneled into degree-granting institutions, the reality of their college experience is creating a host of reactions, some perhaps severe enough to manifest as mental illness – especially for those seeing opportunity in such a diagnosis.

The saddest part of this scenario yet perhaps also its saving grace is its avoidability.  Both individually and as a society we’ve made many choices.  The consequences of those choices may not be fostering a new generation of stable, healthy adults.

The last decades having destigmatized mental health treatments so that more open, productive conversations can occur.  Let’s hope the collegiate mental health conversation includes pathways to and dangers of normalizing mental illness to opportunistically tag young adults ill-equipped to deal with a tough world as afflicted.

Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com and a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.

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