Unlike the Pledge of Allegiance, U.S. universities do not provide “liberty and justice for all” when it comes to mental health rights. Many adolescents rush off to college for a chance at education and independence, yet when the stress of new life experiences becomes too much, they have very few places to turn. While schools have been making an effort to incorporate mental health services on campus, there are still major deficits, which keep students from speaking up and meeting their needs, and they must be fixed.
When my close friend in college went through a period laden with depression, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation, I was stunned at how poorly my university handled the situation. I requested the counseling center speak with her, and they offered her one session and a referral to an off campus therapist. With limited financial means, she had no choice but to take a leave of absence. In a 2016 survey, the National Institute of Mental Health showed the highest rates of depression are among 18-25 year olds. Active Minds, a student mental health advocacy organization, explains that two out of three students with anxiety or depression won’t seek any form of treatment, and that suicide is the second leading cause of death in college students, only preceded by accidents.
I didn’t realize the significance of my friend’s plight until a fellow member in my Active Minds chapter reviewed our insurance policy. She noted that students taking a leave of absence for mental health reasons received a 60% reimbursement for the semester, whereas students taking a leave of absence for physical health conditions received a whopping 100% of their money back.
The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) of 2008 required health plans, who offer mental health services, to provide equal opportunities for care and costs for mental as well as physical health services. In other words, a plan cannot limit an individual with Major Depressive Disorder to ten therapy sessions per year if they would not require someone with lung cancer to only visit their oncologist ten times per year. My friend had to take a leave of absence in 2015, seven years after the MHPAEA was passed. Beyond simply complying with the law to offer financial parity, universities have a moral obligation to support students with mental illnesses. So, what can they do?
As students, friends, loved ones, and advocates, we can make a difference in college mental health. We can support organizations like Active Minds that normalize mental health and destigmatize mental illness—financially or by starting a campus chapter. We must put more time and resources into education—many universities offer a brief introduction to counseling services during orientation, but schools need smear campaigns with counseling center contact information as well as external hotlines and resources so students are aware of their options. Mental health services, student hotlines, and student advocacy groups should also present about available campus resources in classes. And when disparities in parity laws strike, individuals can connect with places like the Bazelon Center, which offer legal and policy support for students whose mental health rights have been violated.
College is supposed to be a place for young minds to flourish, but apparently this only applies to some students. To be sure, many universities are trying to support their students’ wellbeing, but it’s not enough. Universities have an ethical duty to empower this next generation to break down the stigma of mental illness and to begin the discussion about mental health on college campuses. Everyone can support this journey by joining advocacy organizations, encouraging education about resources, and checking their college insurance plan to make sure parity is being followed. The hope is that with more known resources, more students will take advantage of the services and their mental health disorders can be treated before they are in a state of crisis. Should my school have done more to support my friend preventatively, it’s possible that she would have accessed treatment early on and prospered in college. It’s time to put our students’ mental health needs first.
Danielle Polland (LMSW, Primary Therapist at Eating Recovery Center) is a contributing writer to YMFMH.