Ohio State is a renowned university that is home to multiple degree programs and prominent athletic teams in the Buckeye State. The campus serves approximately 60,000 students. Recently, the university has been subject to an increased police presence and foot patrols in its campus parking garage following two events that took place in early April.
Controversy About Student Safety and a Shortage of Mental Health Resources
The university gained attention after the death of sophomore Daniel Birdsall on April 5th. The criminal justice and criminology student died from injuries sustained after a drop from the top level of a six-story university parking garage. Less than two full days later, former student Kelly Denlinger was rushed to the hospital after falling from the same parking garage. Students question whether these tragedies are related to a structural safety problem with the garage or a greater problem associated with mental health.
It is not presently known whether these two individuals fell or jumped. What is clear is that the university has a problem. After these two events, Ohio State President Michael Drake announced the creation of a task force to review and enhance Ohio State’s mental health practices and resources. The focus of the task force is to determine whether events like these could be avoided with mental health intervention. If this campus death and near death were the result of suicidal thoughts, then mental health and coping skills are some things that need to be emphasized at the university.
Mental Health Statistics in the United States
Mental health issues are a big concern in the U.S. Depression, anxiety, and drug addiction are major problems in many American homes. These issues affect home, school, and work life and have a serious impact on overall health.
According to the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States (18.5%) experiences mental illness in a given year. The problem also affects young people in large numbers. In fact, NIMH cites that approximately 1 in 5 people between the ages of 13 and 18 (21.4%) will experience a severe mental disorder. Clearly, mental illness is a prominent public health issue that affects people of all ages.
Why Is It Important to Address Mental Health Issues?
Again, according to the NIMH, mood disorders, which include major depression, dysthymic disorder, and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the United States for both youth and adults 18 to 44 years of age. Those who live with serious mental illnesses face an increased likelihood of suffering from chronic medical conditions as well. Additionally, those who live with a serious mental illness have a life expectancy that is 25 years less than individuals without mental health problems. This is due, in large part, to treatable medical conditions.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States among people of all age groups. However, it is the third leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 14 and the second leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24. Clearly, mental health is a very important issue in this country, especially among college students dealing with a high degree of stress both in and out of the classroom.
Mental Health and Suicide Statistics Among College Students
Suicide is a big issue for young adults in the United States. The statistics are quite staggering, and the rate of suicide has steadily increased over the last several decades. In fact, the suicide rate for individuals 15 to 24 in the United States has tripled since 1950. Nearly 4,000 people aged 15 to 24 die by suicide each year in the United States.
Rates are notably high among those attending postsecondary schools. One in 12 U.S. college students makes a suicide plan. To really understand how severe the problem is for young Americans, we can look at the fact that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among those 20 to 24 years old. This means that a very significant number of deaths within this age range involve people who chose to take their own lives.
Evidence suggests that more can be done to address the problem. The vast majority of young adults aged 18 and older who are diagnosed with depression do not receive the treatment they need. The populations of colleges and universities like Ohio State are at a high risk because of both the age demographics and the stressors involved with simply being a student.
Claims of Insufficient Resources Available to Students
While many students have questioned the adequacy of the mental health resources at Ohio State, the most outspoken voice was that of junior Zachary Hartless. He reported that it took over a month for him to receive a counseling session for an emergency issue. He went on to say that the session, which only lasted 15 minutes, didn’t provide any substantial assistance. He indicated that it was little more than a referral to outside agencies.
In discussing the situation, Hartless said that a campus mental health official “basically told me that I needed more attention than OSU counseling services was able to offer, and he didn’t think I should be seeing a counselor at Ohio State.” In addition to suggesting that Hartless seek attention off campus, the official suggested that the student might be better served by seeking anti-depressants from the Student Health Center; however, they were not readily available to provide care, either.
Despite the inadequate care he received, however, Hartless did not criticize the quality of the counselors. He said, “I don’t blame counseling services. At the end of the day, it comes to a lack of proper staffing by the university. When there are a handful of counselors for 60,000 students, you’re obviously not going to be able to give attention to every single student.”
Ohio State has officially contradicted some of the claims made about the wait time to speak with a counselor. A spokesperson for Ohio State’s Office of Student Life, Dave Isaacs, stated that students seeking help are given a phone appointment within the day to triage their case. He indicated that wait times vary depending on the severity of the individual student’s situation. “If there is an urgent need, they’ll get them to an appointment. With this semester, no one waits longer than a week,” Issacs said.
Darcy Granello of the Campus Suicide Prevention Program suggested that the focus should be on early identification of risk factors and prevention rather than dealing with issues at the point of crisis. According to Granello, the university offers numerous programs geared toward helping students identify and deal with stressors and emotional issues before they grow into problems that are more significant. In discussing the issue, Granello said, “We have a lot of these kinds of supports that are available on campus, things that they could use, that if we could help them recognize before they get to the crisis point, we might be able to save our counseling center for students who truly are in crisis and at risk.”
Efforts to Address Depression and Suicide on Campus
Ohio State students reeling from the events on campus took action to help prevent other tragedies from occurring in the future. It was reported that student organizations posted nearly 6,000 fliers all around campus detailing what local and national mental health resources are available to those in need.
Students also spoke out about the need for greater resources to assist those dealing with mental health issues. In addition to turning to administration with concerns about improving resources, students have organized their own movements and groups to foster change. Hundreds of students have used the GroupMe app to organize their efforts. These groups have met with leaders from the Buckeyes Campaign Against Suicide program to coordinate group action and strategic planning to help prevent future student suicides.
Ohio State Mental Health Programs
While Ohio State has mental health services available, many feel that they are not adequately addressing the needs of students. Considering the prevalence of mental health issues in the general population, it is unreasonable to think that an institution with the population of Ohio State would not need readily available mental health, behavioral science, and emotional support services.
Services are available on campus to help students in need. Available resources include workshops, group therapy, wellness coaching, and the university’s SmartLab. The SmartLab helps students cope with stress and provides other services to assist those dealing with anxiety. Darcy Granello states that their goal is to “help our students recognize when they’re hurting, when they’re at risk before they’re in crisis so that we can help our students use the other services that are available to them.
The problem is that while therapy and education on mental health risks and resources are great, there simply is not enough staff available to address the needs of the university. Furthermore, resources are only helpful if they are understood and fully accessible. This is where information plays the biggest role. If these resources exist on campus but no one talks about them, then those in need may never find the help they seek.
Overcoming Stigma and Implementing Change
The first step in improving the lack of mental health services at Ohio State University is already underway. The problem with making changes as it pertains to mental health is that no one wants to talk about the issue because there is a stigma surrounding it. Often, those who need help don’t get it because there is no open discussion about issues and solutions.
In a Psychology Today article, mental health stigma was described as a binary issue. The authors noted that a social stigma exists that leads to prejudicial attitudes directed toward those with mental health issues. As a result, many people dealing with mental health problems feel shame that prevents them from getting the help they need.
Both social and individual mental health stigma have played a role in preventing students from seeking needed treatment at Ohio State. Nobody was willing to discuss mental health on campus, but after the events of early April, everyone has been talking about it. Getting the topic out in the public eye is the first step.
The next and more difficult step involves a strategic implementation of change and process for improvement. The biggest hurdle here is the lack of available mental health staff. The mental health field is shrinking in terms of the number of people who are seeking advanced degrees and jobs. According to the American Psychological Association, the number of doctorate degrees awarded to mental health professionals has decreased by 6.3 percent in the last two decades. Moving forward, however, Ohio State must find a way to manage student emotional and mental health needs effectively with or without more mental health staff.
Changes for the Future
The pressing need for mental health resources is a problem that will likely continue to affect Ohio State and other academic institutions across the country. It is important for those involved to remember that help can come from sources other than counselors and doctors. Community programs, awareness campaigns, and informational services can all be part of a solution to provide more assistance in the area of mental health. With the added focus on mental health at Ohio State, it is likely that we will see changes involving social media programs, on-campus support groups, and a more active and preventive approach to mental health among students.