Student Experience Of Mental Health On Campus

5.08.2017

By Scott Chasen

Aungelina Taglia came back from the library with a friend and ate a grilled cheese sandwich. She left some crumbs on the plate, a mechanism she uses to cope with her anorexia, but could feel an anxiety attack coming on. She typically didn’t eat late at night, a rule she’d broken that Monday.

With an anxiety attack imminent, Taglia did what she always does. She lied to her friend and told her she was going to hang out with someone else. She got in her car, an appropriately named Ford Escape Hybrid, and drove down 23rd street, past the QuikTrip on Haskell and onto K-10, in hopes of calming herself down.

Some 14 miles later the feelings of nausea had started to fade. Taglia pulled off the side of the road at the Lexington exit in DeSoto, turning around and making the trek back to Lawrence and texting a few friends before falling asleep. The drive, which she’d make again after waking up in the middle of the night, has become far too common in her life.

“I’ve only told my friends that I’ve done that once,” she says of the drive she makes three to four times a week.

Awareness of mental illness is something that is more present now than it has been in past years; more students are being diagnosed with mental health disorders and more are seeking help for the things they identify themselves. According to Christian Vargas, a licensed psychologist and outreach coordinator for the university Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), an estimated 10 percent of the KU student population will have gone through CAPS this year, continuing with a recent pattern of increase. Yet, even as more initiatives exist to help students suffering with mental illness on campus, many difficulties for those students, including the stigmatization of mental illness and lack of understanding from those on campus, remain.

When students like Taglia tell their friends what they’re dealing with, too often the response is one of surprise. Perhaps it shouldn’t be — according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness more than one in four young adults (between ages 18-25) have a diagnosable mental illness — but students often find their friends have their own internal definitions of what someone who is mentally ill should look like and are even skeptical about hearing they have a friend suffering from those same conditions.

That’s part of why Taglia, who has also been diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety, lies to her friends. She recognizes at least part of her hesitancy comes from the experiences of when she’s tried to open up, only for her friends to struggle to comprehend her feelings. As she recalls the memories, she bites her lip and forces a pained smile, fiddling with a hairband on her left wrist.

The first reaction that pops into her head is about one of her tattoos. On the underside of her right wrist is a semi-colon, a symbol representing perseverance and the movement against self-harm. When friends ask about it, she explains its meaning, only for them to ask who she knows that’s actually dealing with those issues, often times in a lighthearted tone that only adds to her frustration.

“It’s like people don’t think you can function … if you suffer from mental illness,” Taglia says. “They’re integrated with you every day in your daily life. You just don’t realize it.”

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Nowadays, when she isn’t working one of four jobs on and off campus, Taglia spends much of her time focused on the topic of mental health and poverty. Her interests in the field originate from her high school experiences. By her freshman year, she was taking care of her mother, who was on several medications for mental health disorders. But Taglia was struggling too, and was hospitalized after she was found attempting suicide freshman year.

Two years later, it was her mother who was in the same scenario. Taglia was pulled out of class one day by three police officers and taken home, where she was told her mom had threatened suicide and locked herself in the house.

Taglia went up to her front door, eventually getting inside and calming her mother down. The two went to a hospital where, by the end of the day, her mother had been released. Reflecting on the experience, Taglia was baffled that given what had just transpired, her mother could so quickly be deemed “mentally competent” and cleared to go home. She wanted to understand the systems that were in place and why they were, in her mind, failing. Years later, it’s her continued dissatisfaction with the system that is at least part of the reason why she isn’t currently undergoing treatment.

For her, a big problem comes with the nature of how things are treated on campus. She says through her research she’s become aware of the resources to help students struggling with mental illness, but often times they only serve to help after something has gone wrong. In her view, this lack of preventative care creates a new problem for universities, leaving too many students who need immediate help from a potentially overextended staff.

“If they’re not in the preventative stage and they’re just in the after stage of trying to help people,” Taglia notes, “there’s going to be too much in the after stage to take care of.”

To be clear, this problem isn’t unique to KU. More and more, it’s happening nationwide. In fact, a recent petition launched by Jacqueline Basulto, a Columbia University alumna, asked for expanded mental-health services at 20 different universities, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Columbia. In February, her university responded, pledging to strengthen its mental health services, offering mental health training — a similar initiative to KU — and creating a mental health awareness week, according to a New York ABC affiliate.

Similarly, at KU wait times can be an issue. Though Vargas notes “urgent needs will be addressed the same day,” one student in particular, Christine Waisner, says she was unable to get help she needed within a time frame that worked for her.

Waisner, now president of the mental health awareness group Active Minds at KU, wasn’t always vocal in the mental health community. Diagnosed with depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, Waisner found it difficult to connect with friends about what she was going through. When she did reach out, the response was usually disappointing.

“So many people just blew it off or they’d be like, ‘Eat a hamburger,’ ” she says.

In her sophomore year, Waisner attempted to make an appointment at CAPS, but the then-one-month wait time was enough of a deterrent that she opted to go off campus. By the end of the year, she’d dropped out of school, taking the end of the spring and the summer to work through some of her difficulties.

Since then, others have identified a similar problem. Harrison Baker, who was on the Student Senate subcommittee for mental health in the 2015-16 school year, put together a report on some of the problems across various colleges, finding many campuses were understaffed and underfunded. “It’s not specific to KU,” Baker says. “But here’s what students across the nation are facing, and it’s no different here at KU.”

Through working with then-Student Senate vice president Miranda Wagner, Baker helped produce a bill to give that subcommittee more power, eventually turning into its own advisory committee with power over the mental health fee. As a chair for the committee, Baker pushed for a $9 increase to the student fee for CAPS to offset what he described as an “unacceptable” student-to-therapist ratio.

Entering 2016, Baker said, the ratio was about 2,200 students for every mental health professional. He said a more ideal number would be anywhere from about 500 to 1,000 students per professional, with the lower end of acceptability being about 1,500 to 1.

But as much as the issue seems it could be fixed by hiring more therapists, that doesn’t solve the underlying problems. It’s important for a university to be properly staffed to help students after a traumatic event, but it’s equally important to focus on helping students before they get to that point.

And that’s where students like Waisner try and pick up the slack.

Waisner returned to KU for her junior year in 2016, ready to get more involved on campus. She looked on the Rock Chalk Central website, picking out the group she now presides over, at least in part by chance. “I went on the database with all the organizations on it,” she said. “You know, it starts with A, so it was at the top of the list.”

From there Waisner rose through the ranks, tabling with the group a few times before becoming an event coordinator and eventually president. Among the projects she’s overseen has been an initiative to fight rising suicide rates nationwide by trying to put the national suicide prevention hotline number on the back of the student ID cards, in addition to the campus police and health services numbers.

The group also helps in other ways, meeting in person to provide members a forum where they can engage with others in conversations about mental health. Other events for Active Minds at KU include presentations from guest speakers as well as panels about various disorders, among other things.

“No matter what the event is,” she says, “it does tend to end up being a place where people are having conversations that they usually don’t have or don’t feel comfortable having.”

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While Waisner lauds some of the progress that has been made on campus, she’d still like to see more of it. One area she says she feels passionate about is “mental health days” — allowing students to seek help for mental illness without being penalized for missing class. However, because of how the university is structured, the systems set up to help the students, like the Academic Achievement and Access Center (AAAC), aren’t able to mandate leniency for a student who misses class because of a mental-health related issue.

Deborah Meyer, associate director of the AAAC, says one of the biggest problems her office has in helping students can be working around a professor’s policy. “We know the importance of participation in the learning process,” she says. “If the instructor has that as part of their syllabus, we’re going to have a really difficult time justifying (that) you don’t have to come to class.”

That can be one roadblock for the office, which Meyer said has seen a recent influx in students with mental illness. In fact, over the last few years, she notes, mental illness has become the second most common reason students contact the AAAC behind only attention related-issues.

However, that increased awareness does not always mean students are fully willing to share their experiences with mental illness. If they opt not to disclose the specifics of their condition, it forces the AAAC to advocate for them while leaving the professors in the dark. Other students may simply choose to learn how to best advocate for themselves, rather than opening up about their difficulties to the office.

“I still believe there’s quite a social stigma around disability, period,” Meyer says. “Everything is on a continuum, but some students do not want to talk about having an attention deficit issue, they don’t want to talk about a learning disorder, they don’t want to talk about a visual or hearing impairment or they don’t want to talk about a mental health disability.”

That puts the professors in a difficult position. When things aren’t explicitly stated, it’s hard for many of them to know what the right actions to take are when presented with students who seem like they’re struggling. Likewise, some professors struggle to identify the signs of mental illness, but it isn’t necessarily for a lack of caring.

“They want to help,” Meyer says. “They’re not exactly sure how they might be able to.”

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While some struggle to broach the subject of mental illness, others like Dan McCarthy, a KU journalism advisor, view the topic differently. He feels no such qualms engaging in a conversation about mental illness, even when a student hasn’t explicitly brought it into the conversation.

“Having experienced it, having had profound first-person primary experience with that situation, I have always been willing kind of just to blow through that,” he says. “I graduated a very depressed person and then proceeded to spend three years very, very depressed.”

Part of McCarthy’s experience in the educational system comes from what he describes as teaching by the lash — this idea that some institutions “are very celebratory about the ways in which they are cruel and vindictive and pointless, hurtful to students.” Simply, he detests the idea that students should be challenged unreasonably under the guise that the challenges are “getting you trained for the future world,” something he says can add to a college student’s stress level.

For that, McCarthy’s advising goes beyond just picking classes and getting a student in and out of the office as fast as possible. He’s always willing to engage in a deeper conversation, and has even made it a point to go through Mental Health First Aid training.

The Mental Health First Aid course is offered both on campus and at the Bert Nash Mental Health Community Center. It aims at helping people learn how to engage in a conversation with mental illness, as well as how to listen without passing judgment, assess if a student might be at risk to commit self harm and encourage appropriate help, according to its mission statement. The training fills a need, Waisner notes, for faculty members who are “sick and tired of watching their students struggle and not knowing how to help.”

Several advisors have already gone through this training. According to Abby Coffin, director of the Undergraduate Advising Center, 25 of the 27 people in her office had already gone through it before May, while the other two had signed up for a future session.

Still, the training isn’t mandated to this point, and it doesn’t appear it will be in the near future. Part of the problem is that there isn’t a single centralized power directing the collective group of advisors. “We technically all don’t have one boss,” McCarthy says.

Without a mandate, the responsibility to help students struggling with mental illness falls on the faculty, advisors, professors and those who interact with students. And while the early numbers for the Mental Health First Aid Training have been promising, both Waisner and Taglia said they’d like to see it become mandated.

As for future initiatives, there are other things in the works at KU. Among the newer steps being taken is the creation of a Peer Mental Health Educator group, which is currently being developed by CAPS. Vargas says the group will start in the fall and feature “10 diverse students” working 10 hours a week and “providing outreach presentations, peer support and active listening at several locations around campus,” among other things.

For the present, though, the same problems remain. There’s still the idea of how people think about mental illness and the challenge of simply getting to a point where more work is being done on the preventive side than in the after stages. And there’s still the idea of mental illness as a whole and the responses many students experience when they try to engage their friends in conversation about it.

“There’s a separate part of the community that I feel people shove the mentally ill in,” Taglia says. “They think of them as a whole separate part of society.”

She continues on before pausing a moment to gather her thoughts.

“The systems that are in place right now,” she says, “aren’t working.”

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