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How Mental Health Policies Shape Student Help-Seeking Behavior

One third of college students reported feeling so depressed that they found it difficult to function in the past year, according to the American College Health Association’s most recent Annual National Survey. With the number of students with mental health conditions increasing, some schools have developed mental health policies which have resulted in expulsion and other mandates which have left students feeling resistant toward seeking help.

Some students have begun questioning whether their rights are being upheld with these new policies, which seem to offset provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which guarantees equal opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

In a recent Newsweek article, a student from the University of California at Santa Barbara spoke about her experience as a Freshman with depression who was seeing a counselor at her school but also was self-injuring. At one point she cut herself deeper than she intended and told a friend. Her friend alerted their resident adviser who then told the administration. The student was told that she had put herself and the entire dorm at risk and that she could be suspended or expelled. She was told she could only stay in school if she waived her confidentiality and let her therapist provide weekly reports to administration. Unable to speak truthfully about her depression and condition for fear of expulsion, she continued cutting and finally broke down to her Psychiatrist. Her Psychiatrist ensured an environment of confidentiality with her and since that time, she hasn’t self-injured.

Students across the country have reported feeling punished for seeking help: getting kicked out of campus housing with nowhere else to go; abruptly forced to withdraw from school; and involuntarily committed to psychiatric wards. Many of these students facing serious mental health issues reported losing autonomy, health insurance, and experiencing a disruption in mental health care and support. Seeing such drastic consequences for seeking help can set a precedent for these students and their fellow classmates: that seeking help can make things worse, not better.

Students who felt that their school handled their mental health crisis supportively noted that they:

  • Did not feel as if they were being punished
  • Felt that their counseling center worked with the school to provide necessary accommodations
  • Were walked through the process and did not feel alone

Creating a culture of accessibility and reducing stigma allows students to come forward to seek help before they have a crisis. Once they are diagnosed, 80 percent of clinically depressed individuals can be effectively treated. Providing support to students in crisis can make a huge impact on their wellbeing and recovery.