One in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have a diagnosable mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). More than 40 percent of college students have felt what they consider to be a healthy amount of stress within the past 12 months, and more than 80 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year. This isn’t exactly breaking news–college is a new and sometimes stressful experience, especially at WashU. However, it may be surprising that 34.2 percent of college students who experienced a mental health crisis on campuses across the nation reported that their college didn’t know about their crisis.
This semester, several students have been anonymously reporting via WashU Confessions, a popular page on Facebook, that the mental health services at Student Health Services is unreliable and impossible. Many say they have called to schedule a first appointment only to be left without a response. Why is this?
I talked to Dr. Thomas Brounk, Director of Mental Health Services at the Habif Health and Wellness Center, to find out more about this issue and about Mental Health Services in general.
In response to the claim that Mental Health Services is unreliable for returning phone calls, Brounk said, “We are returning phone calls, but this leads to an unfortunate ‘phone tag’ problem when the student calls back and our service coordinator is on the line with another student. We are in the process of exploring the possibility of implementing a new system where students are able to sign up online for the brief telephone assessment. Our service coordinator would then call the student at the designated time. This hopefully will help to decrease the problem.”
As stated multiple times on the WashU Confessions page, this unreliable nature of contacting Mental Health Services can be frustrating and discouraging for students who need help and can’t get it in a timely manner. Several students have said no one was there to answer the phone when they called. The idea of starting a new system of online sign-ups is promising, but it is still in its beginning stages. How long will it take for this idea to come to life?
Another option for SHS would be to increase the number of employees taking calls and assessing students. If the problem is that their service coordinator is on the line with another student when one student returns their call–or that no one is at the desk when some calls come in–then having more service coordinators will help with that. Whatever the solution, something needs to be done relatively quickly because when it comes to mental health especially, time is of the essence.
For those students who feel their situation needs attention right away, Brounk recommends coming immediately to SHS. If that isn’t an option, he said the student should call SHS and “indicate on the voicemail message that they are experiencing a crisis.” In this case, Mental Health Services will take quicker action. He also notes that “if the emergency is life-threatening, [the individual should] always call 314-935-5555 on campus or 911 off campus.”
These emergency options are widely advertised on campus; however, not every situation is a crisis, and there are many organizations specifically for that purpose that are not so widely known. According to Brounk, Mental Health Services works very closely with the Residential Life staff and various student groups with a focus on mental health, such as Uncle Joe’s, Peer Health Educators, and Active Minds, to help get the word out about the services SHS has to offer. This semester, they have also trained a group of graduate and undergraduate students to provide Mental Health First Aid for someone experiencing psychological distress, Brounk said.
This is a step in the right direction, but it’s worth considering giving everyone advice on how to provide Mental Health First Aid instead of a select group of students who are accepted into the program. Mental Health First Aid is a program that’s intended to help people help others; students are trained to immediately respond to signs of mental health crises. However, many students do not know that it exists, and its application process makes it seem exclusive. By expanding the program and having the information be given to all students on campus, students’ likelihood of getting the immediate help they need would increase.
It would be beneficial if students were also given advice on how to deal with general mental health problems such as high stress or difficulties dealing with the new experiences associated with college. SHS has touched on the idea of providing advice for managing these problems by introducing a new Stressbusters wellness app, available for Apple and Android devices, that “connects students to emergency care 24/7 and offers a variety of wellness-boosting tips and resources.” In addition, this semester, Mental Health Services has started a new Mindfulness and Resiliency workshop series that runs throughout the semester on Friday afternoons from 2:10-3PM in the SHS classroom–no registration needed.
So, although to many students it may seem as if Mental Health Services is unreliable and not helpful, there are many services available of which students aren’t really aware. However, these services aren’t perfect. Because there is always room for improvement, Brounk encourages students to join the University Health and Wellness committee if they feel they can add to Mental Health Services and their efforts. In order to make a change, sometimes students need to step up and take things into our own hands.