The Council on Foreign Relations hosted a conference call on Jan. 30 to discuss mental health on college campuses. The conference call involved colleges from around the country, including Case Western Reserve University, Virginia Commonwealth University, San Diego State University, Ohio State University and Johns Hopkins University. Students, faculty and community members were able to listen in and ask questions.
As stated on their website, the Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan organization committed to helping citizens “better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.”
With an increased focus on mental health, this call aimed to discuss how universities are looking for ways to balance finances, student growth, campus resources and education accessibility.
“It would be great if people … could be more aware of the stress and anxiety that students face,” said Sylvia Burwell, president of American University. “There is a natural stress that’s sometimes about learning. But clearly, there was something more and something different, perhaps, from what we’ve historically seen.”
Burwell previously served as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the Obama Administration. She is currently the first female president of American University.
“In my first year as president of American University, I met with students from a variety of backgrounds and quickly learned that they have a great deal of insight into why they experience more stress and anxiety than previous generations,” said Burwell. “The answer boils down to three factors: safety, economics and technology.”
According to Burwell the mismatch of inflation between the economy, wages and tuition; a new post-9/11 concept of safety compounded by gun violence and discrimination; and a constant curation of identity via technology are the main differences for current students. These differences transfer to mental health.
Thirty-nine percent of college students experience symptoms of anxiety or depression, according to the 2016-2017 Healthy Minds Study, a national study on mental health on college campuses. The study also reported an increase of suicide ideation from six percent in 2007 to 11 percent in 2017.
Despite the copious amount of campus events with therapy dogs, CWRU has “encountered the same [national] trends,” says Dr. Jennifer Wright McCarthy, executive director for University Health and Counseling Services (UH&CS). Specifically, the increased prevalence of anxiety and depression.
“All three of [Burwell’s factors] probably exert a different level of challenge for each individual student,” said Stephen “Skip” Begley, co-director of Residence Life at CWRU.
The importance of a university remaining “nimble” to ever-changing problems, including the over-admittance of students and exhaustion of resources, was repeatedly touched on by Burwell.
“How one at the university has flexibility and capability [to accommodate changes] is something we all must focus on, and I think that universities more broadly need to work toward being more nimble,” Burwell said. “Whether that’s when you have an influx of a larger group of students coming in or there are changes that you need to make—such as [needing] to take into account mental health, perhaps in a different way than [they] currently have.”
CWRU efforts to combat over-admittance and resource exhaustion were described by McCarthy and Begley.
“Some exciting changes include development of the Wellness Ambassador program; students who are interested in promoting wellness on campus can join, with no minimum time commitment. Student input and leadership are the key to successful wellness programming. In addition, UH&CS has increased the number of psychiatry and nutrition appointments available,” said McCarthy.
Begley elaborated that Residence Life has increased “staffing to accommodate an increased number of students in the entering undergraduate classes.”
UH&CS also began an effort last year to include a culture of wellness on campus, and a suicide prevention program called QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer) has also been established.
“Promoting awareness of mental health and the importance of seeking help is everyone’s
responsibility,” said McCarthy. “The university has professionals who can assist students in need. Promotion of self-care is also very important—scheduling time for exercise and social connection helps maintain well-being.”
University Counseling Services can be contacted via email and over the phone as well as through walk-in appointments at their office in Sears. The CWRU Advocate Megan Long can also be contacted via email and phone. The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center provides a 24-hour text or call hotline and has on-campus hours.