Mental Health on Campuses

An article in Inside Higher Ed discusses the ways in which a Canadian university is trying to address mental health concerns of people on campus. I read the article twice and, from what I could understand, the idea is not so much to offer help to those who solicit it but to identify and assist those who do not:

We discussed the concept of a central repository for information and concerns about students – and struggled with the idea of privacy rights, slander and alarmism. What resulted was a call to the Winnipeg RegionalHealth Authority and the creation of a specific task force on the topic. The long-term plan includes offering a Mental Health First Aid certificate to everyone on campus: faculty, staff and students, as well as establishing a concrete strategy to consolidate potential concerns about all members of the campus community in a sensitive and functional way.

This is not an easy task, and the group is only in its infancy. Much of the talk around the table has centred on how to respond to students who are obviously acting out. One issue is that it has the potential to focus on the punitive. Another concern was that this would only address a portion of those on campus who could benefit from some care and attention. We are a campus community and I believe that we need to show care to everyone – not just the large group of undergraduate students who are the easiest to target. What about the faculty who are struggling with the publish-or-perish-syndrome?

To be honest, I’m bothered by the language of the article. I don’t want anybody to decide whether I need “some care and attention.” Truth be told, care and attention are the last things I seek from my work environment. I fail to see how I could benefit from some do-gooder with no specialized training diagnosing me and offering unsolicited help. From what I understand, no therapist can help a person who doesn’t express a desire to be helped. With the proliferation of TV shows of the Dr. Phil variety, many people now believe they are in the position to inflict their platitudes about mental health on others. I, for one, would like my workplace to be free of any discussions of my mental issues that are not initiated solely and exclusively by me.

I’m afraid that this kind of programs will identify those of us whose ways of behavior are in any way unusual or eccentric and hound us with offers to improve our existences.

The article ends with a series of questions:

When does this “care and concern” constitute an invasion of privacy? Do we have the potential to cause damage with our actions? We are a teaching institution – at what point does our attentiveness over-step boundaries into an area that has nothing to do with the mandate of the Academy?

My answer to them is: Yes, it does. Yes, we do. And, from the very beginning.

Everybody should do what they were trained to do. I should teach and do research. Mental health specialists should treat mental health issues of their patients. Just like I don’t expect a therapist or a psychiatrist to teach my course on Hispanic Civilization with any degree of success, a scholar cannot be expected to provide psychological help to students or colleagues.

How do you feel about such initiatives?

12 thoughts on “Mental Health on Campuses”

  1. This is beyond weird, unless the institution is experiencing such things as mass shootings on a regular basis and someone suspects that there is some stressor in the environment which leads to people so inclined to be far more likely to act on those proclivities. In this case, I suppose it becomes a matter of public safety. Otherwise, it is completely unwarranted.

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  2. As a person trying to find decent treatment for my variety of depression and anxiety, I don’t think this will help anybody. You’ll target people who seem depressed and end up getting people who are having a bad day or – god forbid – don’t see it as their job to go around broadcasting their good moods. You’ll target people who are clinically anxious and end up getting a bunch of people who are overworked perfectionists, but kind of like arranging their lives that way. And with the way we’ve gotten about extroversion, anybody who’s the slightest bit introverted is suspect.
    But more importantly, in the rare case you net somebody with actual mental health issues, that doesn’t mean they’ll benefit from treatment. Modern psychology is doing better than when it was just Freud, I think, but (as a consumer of mental health treatment) we’ve vastly overstated how far we’ve come. But how can patients have an active part in choosing the treatment that actually WORKS for them if they’re not given an option to have treatment in the first place?
    So, not only a violation of privacy, but also completely ineffective.

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    1. I think you are absolutely right in everything you say here. Depression and anxiety are very serious issues that cannot be treated in this cavalier way by people who have no knowledge of how depression works. What will they do to help? Hand out brochures?

      And also, it’s annoying how mental health issues are presented as less important and complicated than, say, diabetes. Nobody is expecting profs and students to diagnose diabetes in their colleagues.

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      1. Not diabetes per se, but erratic behavior and fainting and so from diabetes you have to call in … you can’t just leave them fainting on the floor or assume they’re on drugs, you’ve got to freakin’ call it in.

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  3. This is about trying to identify people who may be about to lose it and shoot people. Since the Virginia Tech incident memos have been flying around all campuses about how to identify the dangerous and so on, and secretaries have panic buttons, etc. It isn’t about regular mental health help, although it is written to sound that way for reasons having to do with various types of discretion & also from what I understand, legality.

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  4. (At least, that’s my impression not reading the article … also post a couple of murders in the dorms we’re supposed to report apparent instability, refer people to counseling and so on.)

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  5. Also consider the CYA aspect of all this. It’s so that the institution is safe from lawsuits about not having done enough to prevent murder / suicide / etc.

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      1. Reminds of zero tolerance laws in American schools with primary goal to protect the school itself against lawsuits and under which the abused party has a great chance of being thrown out of school too. No person = no problem, after all and institutions are (only?) interested in their safety.

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  6. A better approach would be to have a Mental Health Center (or whoever you want to call it) well-staffed with fully qualified professionals, have a variety of options (my grad school was pretty good at it. It not only had traditional 1-1 therapy but meeting groups for people who were undergoing different things. All was optional, of course), make people aware that those resources exist, and fight the stigmatization of mental illnesses. But hey, that costs money. It’s easier to try to make a professor (like me) who is fully unqualified to detect anything, the police who is catching cases.

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    1. Oh, I agree completely. A good Mental health Center that receives ample, regular funding from the university is extremely important. It is a much better alternative to any amateurish diagnosing.

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  7. Clarissa, your blogs, all of them (I’ve just finished reading everyone) made more literal sense than this universities concept of mental health and reaching out to students, faculty, etc.

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