“Let’s catch them before they fall”

Student writer Mary Bergwell talks to President Gerard Clancy and student Hannah Green on Clancy’s appointment to a national committee supporting student mental health.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has selected TU President Gerard Clancy to serve on its committee called “Supporting the Whole Student: Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Well-being in Higher Education.” As one of only two university presidents named to the committee, President Clancy is serving alongside professional psychologists, neuroscientist addiction specialists and the heads of student services at universities across the nation. Sponsors of this committee include the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration.
Ultimately, the purpose of this committee is to create policy and outline best practices regarding how mental health, substance abuse and well-being should be handled at the university level.

As many students are aware, mental health, substance abuse and overall wellness are hot button issues facing college campuses, but from an administrative perspective, they represent a subset of a much wider issue: meeting accreditation standards. For example, the Higher Learning Commission expects administrators to be constantly tracking TU’s retention rates, graduation rates and dropout rates in addition to monitoring how the university assesses and addresses the needs of its students.

As college represents an academically challenging and emotionally stressful time in many students’ lives, those individual student needs encompass a wide range. For some, this might include counseling and emotional support services, while it might resemble one-on-one coaching and help with career planning for others. In addressing these needs, President Clancy has opted for a wellness approach, focusing mainly on prevention.

“If stress causes depression and drives people toward substance abuse, then let’s prevent the stress,” said President Clancy.

Engaged in this prevention-oriented mindset, the university has implemented a number of support networks aimed at identifying students who might be at risk before their struggles culminate in a bigger issue. One of these networks includes drop guard, a recent program that alerts advisors if one of their students misses a series of consecutive classes.

“When students miss a week’s worth of classes, sometimes it means that someone is really struggling, and this allows us to reach out and ask, ‘Are you okay?’” said Clancy.

While this programming is a step in the right direction, Junior film studies major Hannah Green wishes that the administration would take it one step further:

“It feels like you’re having to trade a grade for your mental health. There’s so much emphasis placed on grades and GPA that it feels like you have to choose,” said Green.

For her, this meant that when she was struggling, she was still going to class without necessarily engaging. This case is not uncommon, and it represents a loophole in the proposed policy that the administration has introduced.

“In syllabi, there’s nothing referencing mental health. There are references for serious illness leading to the hospital, what TU considers to be an acceptable excused absence and resources for Title IX and sexual assault, but there’s nothing referencing campus resources for mental health,” said Green.

There is programming being put in place to train faculty and staff to help students who may be struggling with their mental health, but in Green’s opinion, it still requires students to take the leap of faith required to communicate what is going on to your professors.

“Once I got the confidence to talk to my professors, they were so understanding,” explained Green. “But not everyone has that confidence.”

Green continued, “If professors were able to say, ‘If you’re struggling with your mental health, you can come to me and I can help you.’ In their syllabi, if they could say, ‘These are the signs and symptoms of depression or anxiety.’ When you can go to your professor or mentor, a relationship of trust develops that makes you feel less alone in your struggle.”

Green, who thanks her best friend for intervening when she saw her exhibiting symptoms of depression, recognizes the stigma still present on campus. That friend helped make Green comfortable enough to pursue counseling services on campus.

Getting help “is a very scary thing to do if you’ve never done it before,” commented Green. “If people see you going into the health center, what are they going to say? I think that people associate the health center with one of two things: therapy and STD testing, and neither of those are great for your reputation.”

This coincides with President Clancy’s belief that stigma is the always the first biggest hurdle for the university to overcome with regard to mental health.

“Stigma is what stands between people getting to talk about these issues, understand that there is help, and realize that, if they have difficulties with alcohol or depression, that these are diseases and [that] it’s okay to ask for help,” said Clancy.

Clancy believes that students have become more upfront than they used to be about their struggles. This is just one step forward in ending the stigma on campus and ending the stigma at a national level.

The way that President Clancy hopes to address the stigma on campus is by providing multiple ways of getting help:

“Faculty can refer students. The wonderful people at the Student Success Center can coordinate everyone from tutors to coaches to help get that student the services that they need,” said Clancy.

For Hannah Green, she hopes that other students who have overcome some of these challenges will be willing to come forward and talk about their struggles.

“Talking about it helps, the more that people talk about it the more you end the stigma. I say, ‘hey, this happened to me, and I was this way, but I’m not anymore.’ That’s a powerful thing, and people realize, ‘Oh, maybe it’s okay to talk about this.’”

Post Author: Mary Bergwell