Mental Health

Colleges try to erase stigma over depression/mental illness

Monday, October 24, 2005

Of The Patriot-News

When University of Pennsylvania senior Kyle Ambrogi died by suicide this month, the Ivy League school reached out to its students.

It reminded them via e-mail that counseling and psychological services are available 24 hours a day. An administrator implored the student body to “look out for one another,” said Phyllis Holtzman, executive director for communications at Penn.

“We’re very mindful … that this is a time to raise awareness,” she said.

While acknowledging that mental-health programs on college campuses have improved, a consortium of national suicide-prevention groups, mental-health providers and advocates is calling on colleges and universities to do more to prevent suicide and take away the stigma attached to mental illness.

“There is a dire need for education for all young adults on where to turn when they hear their friends talking about suicide, or themselves,” said Alison Malmon, president and executive director of Active Minds on Campus, a suicide-prevention program directed at college students.

Malmon, a former Penn student whose brother died by suicide in 2000 while on leave from Columbia University, said the stresses associated with college take a toll on some students, especially those suffering from diseases such as depression and schizophrenia. What is needed, she said, is to make students feel comfortable with seeking treatment and help others understand how mental diseases work, she said.

Malmon is participating in a nationwide campaign called “Avoid Majoring in Depression,” spearheaded by the American Federation for Suicide Prevention, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

“The real problem is that there are still so many kids who aren’t getting help,” said Dr. David Fassler of the American Psychiatric Association, who co-chairs the Presidential Health Task Force on Mental Health on College Campuses. “The majority of kids who commit suicide weren’t even known to the health-services people on the college campuses.”

Counselors keep busy

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among college-age people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year it kills about 2,500 people aged 20 to 24. A recent study indicates that the rate among college students is significantly lower than in the general population, but it still causes concerns among college administrators.

“Any given semester we have a handful of students we are watching,” said Andy Sagar, one of two counselors for Elizabethown College’s 1,800 students.

At Kutztown University in Berks County, students have access to The Counseling Center. Last year was a busy one for the center, said counselor and assistant professor of psychology Bruce Sharkin.

Sharkin, author of a soon-to-be-published guidebook for college and university faculty and staff on how to help students who are depressed or suicidal, said there is growing concern on college campuses about preventing suicide.

“We get a lot of students who have , but it stops at that level,” he said.

Stress on college campuses is increasing, and Greg Stanson, vice president for student services at Lebanon Valley College in Annville Twp., expects the trend to continue. As it grows, he said, the suicide risk will grow with it.

“This will continue to be a real problem for colleges and society in general,” he said.

Colleges attuned to needs

An informal survey of colleges in the Harrisburg region showed that all provide counseling services to students and training for staff and dormitory assistants on how to recognize the symptoms of depression and other conditions.

Dickinson College, with a student body of about 2,600, offers counseling services and 24-hour psychological services to students in crisis, said Christine Dugan, a spokeswoman for the school.

“We’re constantly reviewing our methods … and concurrently trying to provide an atmosphere where students struggling with these concerns can come forward,” Dugan said.

Lebanon Valley College also provides training for staff and dorm assistants, and tries to emphasize awareness among its staff, Stanson said.

Similar services are offered by Elizabethtown, Franklin & Marshall College and Kutztown.

Stanson, who has been with LVC for 40 years, said taboos surrounding mental illness seem to be easing. More parents and students are telling college administrators about their mental-health treatments, he said.

Though the college is aggressive about addressing mental-health issues, more needs to be done to overcome the stigma attached to behavioral diseases because it prevents too many students from seeking help, Stanson said.

Elizabethtown’s Sagar agreed.

A better understanding of mental illness is evident in the reduction of late-night emergencies that require counseling, he said. A better network, including access to a screening test on the college’s Web site, means fewer students falling through the cracks, he said.

“I wouldn’t say the stigma is gone from everybody’s mind,” Sagar said. “That’s something that we still have to work at.”

2005 The Patriot-News

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