Mental Health and Academics
Stress and Existing Concerns
Today’s university students face a number of mental health issues that can affect their behavior in the classroom and impede their academic success. For example, students experience financial stress due to increasing costs of higher education and declining financial resources. Many students have to work many hours to afford college. Students struggle to get adequate sleep with so many activities to keep them up late (e.g., gaming and social networking). More students come to college already demonstrating problematic drug and alcohol use. And today’s young adults seem to have poorer coping skills to use when stressed, distressed and disappointed. We also see more students coming to college with diagnoses of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and Asperger’s disorder.
A survey of counseling center clients over 13 years (Benton et al., 2003) found that the number of students who reported a) depression or anxiety doubled; b) taking medication doubled; c) suicidal thoughts tripled; d) problems with academic skills quadrupled.
Mental Health at the UO
A 2010-11 snapshot of UO Counseling Center clients revealed that 52% reported that they did not handle anxiety well; 33% were anxious continually; 18% had recent thoughts about killing themselves; 7.3% had previously tried to kill or harm themselves; 17% often became extremely angry; 7.5% had previously acted in a violent way toward another person; 3.4% had current thoughts of physically harming others; and 2% reported hearing strange voices.
Signals of Distress
A significant change in a student’s behavior may indicate that the student is experiencing emotional or psychological distress. Some signals of distress include:
- Excessive procrastination and failure to turn in assignments on time
- Decrease in the quality of work
- Sudden and/or frequent class absences
- Too frequent office visits or avoiding interacting with instructors
- Failure to respond to notice of academic problems or contacts from instructors.
- Listlessness, sleeping in class
- Marked changes in personal hygiene
- Impaired speech or disjointed thoughts, rambling and/or illogical speech
- Significant weight loss/gain
- Seeming to be under the influence of drug or alcohol, smelling like alcohol
- Threats regarding safety of self or others
How to Help
While student’s mental health issues are a serious concern, there is good news. Being a university student can be a protective factor! Universities provide a broad range of resources to identify students of concern and to intervene when needed. Faculty and staff are an important part of the safety net for students experiencing mental health issues. Here are a few important tips.
- Notice changes in behavior among your students.
- Communicate your concerns directly to the student. Be specific and behavioral. For example, “I’m worried about you. You have been missing class a lot lately.” “You usually participate actively in class discussions, but lately you have been very quiet and you seem to have difficulty staying awake.”
- Ask directly about students’ thoughts about suicide. Again, be specific. Don’t ask if they are thinking about harming themselves since there are many non-lethal ways to harm oneself. Instead, say something like “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
- Ask directly about students’ thoughts regarding violence toward others. For example, use a statement like “You feel so angry toward Person X. Is there any chance that you are considering harming that person?”
- Students will sometimes say that they want to tell you something, but that they do not want to you tell anyone. Do not promise to keep something private until you know what it is. Even mental health professionals cannot guarantee absolute confidentiality when someone’s life is in danger.
- Maintain clear and consistent boundaries. While it may be important sometimes to do something out of the ordinary for a student in order to help, notice if you are consistently overextending yourself.
- Be aware of your own life experiences that might cause you to over identify with students. Over identification can sometimes lead us to ignore the boundaries we need to set with students or to assume that what helped us will also help the student.
- Be aware experiences that might cause you to feel more feel more afraid of, intimidated by, or annoyed with some students. Those feelings might cause you to avoid interacting with a troubled student or to address concerning behavior.
- Remember that your role is to identify concerns and refer to mental health and other professionals. Call the Counseling Center to consult. Ask the student if you can call the Counseling Center to set up an appointment while the student is in your office – or if the student would be willing to walk over to the Counseling Center with you right then. Contact the Office of the Dean of Students to let them know you are concerned about a student.