National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Colleges and Mental Health Services

A story on NPR’s Morning Edition program in October focused on the need for colleges to increase supports for students living with mental health disorders and mental illness.

Aracadio Morales, a resident dean on campus at Stanford University, noticed that, in the last few years, calls to his help line have evolved from complaining about roommates to more serious issues such as depression. "We're getting students that wouldn't have been here 10 years ago," he says, "because they're on antidepressants or antipsychotic medication, and they're functioning fairly well. But it can be a big challenge for colleges when these students have crises.”

Today, one of Morales’ core duties is to train his resident advisor staff, where he instructs them always to “err on the side of safety” when determining who may be at risk—both to others and themselves.

Experts and college staff agree that early intervention—addressing an issue before it reaches crises level—is the key to success in terms of mental health support. A former Palo Alto, Calif., mayor and his wife, Vic and Mary Ojakian, became mental health advocates after their youngest son, Adam, died by suicide during his senior year at the University of California, Davis in 2004. "We determined that he became very anxious due to a certain situation — what's called a triggering event," says Mary Ojakian. "It was ultimately severe depression that caused his death."

The International Association of Counseling Services sets the standards for mental health services and recommends that, in order to keep students safe and healthy, a college campus should have a minimum of one therapist for every 1,000-1,500 students. When a school falls significantly short of that, the wait-lists for students seeking help can be a month or more. In one recent study, students who got stuck on a long wait list were 14 percent more likely to drop out than those who got timely counseling.

Some big fixes will indeed cost big money. But others — such as peer support groups and a basic Web site that at least points students to other telephone and online mental health resources — are cheap enough that even the most financially strapped colleges should have them in place.

"Parents [of high school seniors] need to look at a college not just in terms of its academic credentials," Vic Ojakian says. "Ask what sort of mental health services they have." The Ojakians were particularly dismayed as they began their work to learn that some schools have no counseling center and no mental health services at all.

To join NAMI’s efforts in creating awareness and supports for mentall illness on school campuses, visit NAMI On Campus.