Better Services for Mental Health

By Emily Merlino

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The reasons for this consistent rise in depression among college students remain unconfirmed, but it is clear that colleges must provide increasingly exemplary health services to students suffering from debilitating mental illnesses.

To quote Amherst native Emily Dickinson, suffering from depression is akin to feeling a “funeral in the brain.” When a wave of melancholy hits, one feels like an incredibly insignificant speck in the universe, like every light in the world has not simply been shut off but smashed, never to shine again.

It is an incredible loneliness. However, it is an illness that more than one in three college students suffers from, myself included, and that number is rising. With these sorts of statistics, one would think colleges and universities would have strict, fast-moving services in place to aid students with mental health illnesses. Unfortunately, the University of Massachusetts’ mental health services have much to improve on.

I have probably always had some semblance of undiagnosed depression, but a severe, clinical bout barreled into my world during my first semester of college. What was supposed to be the most enjoyable time of my life quickly descended into a nightmarish, tear-filled few months, through which all I wanted to do was literally disappear. I did not want to die, per se; I just desired to sort of dissolve down to a molecular level, where I wouldn’t have to feel anything, much less misery.

During this time, I was undiagnosed and therefore was not receiving any medication. After what seemed to be the millionth heart-wrenching phone call to my mother, an event that never failed to leave the screen of my phone covered with tears, I finally decided that this was absolutely no way to live and decided to obtain the help I had needed for months.

My first stop on my quest to vanquish depression was the UMass Health Services website. On this page, the office has a link to its mental services webpage, which is ripe with links and phone numbers.

When I called the number listed for UMass’ Mental Health Services, I was desperate, despondently looking to get into contact with someone who could help quickly. Presumably because I did not have a suicide plan in place, I was instead given a two-week waiting period before I could even speak to someone.

It shouldn’t even have to be mentioned that severe clinical depression is not exactly something that can wait for weeks before action is taken. No, it does not warrant a trip to the Emergency Room, but for those who already feel utterly alone, being told your misery would have to continue for weeks before any action could be taken is simply inexcusable.

After what seemed like an eternity, when a mental health services employee finally spoke to me, she treated me like I was absolutely wasting her time. When I discussed my family’s history of depression and told her I was fairly sure I had symptoms of clinical depression, she did not even take the time to screen me, the first logical step in treating depression. Because I did not have suicidal thoughts, she literally told me that obviously my depression was not pressing or worthy of concern. Finally, her proposed “treatment” was suggesting that I drop out of the University.

 

This was someone who was supposed to be a comforting presence on campus for students suffering from mental illnesses. Unfortunately, she was the sorriest excuse for a counselor I have ever encountered. Luckily, I eventually was brought into contact with a nurse practitioner who prescribed an antidepressant that has been incredibly helpful and effective.

I have not detailed my personal story as an affront to UMass’ Mental Health Services. I simply feel my experience is a prime example of why colleges across America need to step up and improve their services for students with mental illnesses.

According to a study by the American Psychological Association, the number of students on psychiatric medicines has increased by more than 10 percentage points over the last 10 years. Of course, one could argue the reason for this is because the number of medicines available has increased over that same span. But, the fact is, Sertraline (commonly known as Zoloft or Lustral), the most popular antidepressant, has been on the market since 1991.

The reasons for this consistent rise in depression among college students remain unconfirmed, but it is clear that colleges must provide increasingly exemplary health services to students suffering from debilitating mental illnesses.

The first step in reforming mental health services at universities like UMass is implementing an organized, efficient system to screen students for depression. At Loyola University in Chicago, first-time visitors to the university’s medical center are given a two-question survey to screen for depression. If the patient’s answers indicate a possibility of depression, the student is more extensively evaluated.

 

Such screenings are incredibly beneficial for both universities and students alike. The universities have an organized system to record depression levels among students and therefore more easily establish programs to better help students with mental health afflictions. Conversely, screenings can help students who were previously averse to discussing their potential depression by opening the door for questions and support.

Additionally, colleges must continue to attempt to obtain bright, compassionate doctors, nurses, prescribers, psychologists, and psychiatrists to support students and get them the help they need. It is vital that such professionals keep up to date with the latest in mental health news and provide a comfortable environment for students to discuss their ailments and problems.

As depression rates continue to rise among college students, American universities are faced with a burgeoning responsibility. Colleges must take care of their students, and increasing mental illness rates should mean increasing available services. If the services available for students were to improve, perhaps the “funeral in their brains” could become a sunnier, warmer occasion, where depression is just another villain easily vanquished.

Emily Merlino is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @EmilyMerlino