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The anxiety of college life and its effects on students’ mental health have been accentuated and put under extreme scrutiny by a recent flare-up of suicides at New York University. Three NYU students have committed suicide during the first two months of the fall semester. Michelle Glucagon's tragedy on October 18th was preceded by Stephen Bohler's October 10th suicide and that of John Skolnik in September. The recent spate of suicides at NYU, in addition to other high-profile suicides at college campuses throughout the country, has reemphasized the need for students’ mental health awareness to become a top priority on college campuses.
Suicide now ranks as the 3rd leading cause of death among college students, as over one thousand American students between the ages of 18 and 24 commit suicide each year. While some students often describe their college years as "the best years of my life," for many others the college years are difficult and sometimes painful ones—years filled with thoughts of suicide, depression and other mental illnesses.
Incoming students must adjust to new surroundings, people, classes and other various stresses. The pressures of college life added to the individual’s biological or psychosocial predisposition have made mental illnesses on college campuses an increasingly prevalent issue. In fact, the college years are the time when an individual is most likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness. Over 27 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have a diagnosable form of mental illness. Every year in college communities, countless students struggle alone with mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders.
Mental illness is a pressing issue on college campuses—one that deserves the serious attention of administrators, faculty and students alike. But unfortunately, adequately funded and easily accessible mental health resources are the exception rather than the norm. University counseling centers are frequently faced with declining resources in spite of increasing and often overwhelming demand. Students repeatedly find their accessibility to services limited and feel that "every door is the wrong door." Concisely, mental health is not a priority on most college campuses. Students face multiple barriers to getting help and the stigma towards mental illness continues.
"Every year, more and more students become overwhelmed, depressed, or are diagnosed with a mental illness," says Renata Ponichtera, the Affiliate Relations Manager at NAMI. "These students often feel they have nowhere to turn and no one to trust. Their options are so limited that they often put on a facade for others, and suffer through their ordeal alone."
The fact is that mental illnesses on college campuses are expected to increase. While some steps to address mental illness have been taken on individual campuses around the country, there is no national group or movement that has dedicated itself to support, education, advocacy and outreach for college students. Thus, it is especially significant that NAMI has recently introduced an initiative geared towards colleges and universities—NAMI on Campus.
With the help of its more than 1,000 state organizations and local affiliates, NAMI plans to create a network of campus chapters tailored to the needs of students at schools across the nation. Not only will these clubs promote education and advocacy for mental health, but they will also plan several campus-friendly activities to engage their members and other students. Since there has never been an undertaking of this kind on the national level, NAMI has a unique opportunity to revolutionize and spread its mission to a population that has been arguably ignored and under-served for far too long.
"Bringing mental illness awareness groups to college campuses is way overdue, especially since we’re the population that is most vulnerable to these afflictions," says Vanessa Gannon, a senior at Georgetown University. "As a freshman coming to Georgetown from small-town Arkansas, I was extremely overwhelmed but never did anything about it. I didn’t believe there was really anything I could do about my depression, so I just pretended that I was happy—even though my first semester was easily the worst 4 months of my life. I definitely wish there had been a student group I could have turned to for support and a social outlet."
Earlier this year, the first NAMI campus affiliates were established at Arizona State University and Louisiana State University. The ASU chapter was launched due to the hard work of two individuals, Cainan Foltz and Eryn Pagel-Stumpp, and a group of several dedicated students started the LSU chapter. Foltz and Pagel-Stumpp founded NAMI-ASU because there were no student organizations on their campus that focused on mental illness or addressed the stigma surrounding it.
"Many students are surprised and pleased that we are so open about mental illness, a topic not usually discussed [openly]," said Foltz. Both the Arizona State and Louisiana State campus affiliates have been extremely active and successful, and they in turn serve as an example to NAMI and other students of the challenges and benefits to be expected when presenting mental health awareness to a college community.
In addition to these initial college affiliates, there have been ongoing efforts to establish NAMI-sponsored mental health awareness chapters at several other universities—including Utah Valley State College, Purdue University, Texas Christian University, the University of Vermont, and Washington University in St. Louis. Additionally, students and faculty from dozens of other schools have shown initial interest in helping to start a campus chapter at their respective schools.
Ponichtera anticipates that the initial enthusiasm and support for NAMI’s campus outreach program will continue. "Hopefully, the campus affiliate successes we’ve had at Arizona State, Louisiana State, Utah Valley State and other places will inspire students across the country to unite in the fight for mental health support and education on college campuses. Many students are sick, and others give up on their lives completely. This is a problem that is not just going to go away, and it’s time to take action."
Additionally, Ponichtera reiterates that NAMI needs motivated students to help the organization spread its mission. With the assistance of such students, NAMI on Campus will continue to expand and reach out to the college community—a faction of society whose mental health problems have been dubiously neglected.
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