Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Monday, December 10, 2018

Burwell sparks conversation on mental health at AU with Foreign Affairs essay

“Generation Stress” received criticism from students, but Burwell says discussion will take AU to a "better place"

Burwell sparks conversation on mental health at AU with Foreign Affairs essay

University President Sylvia Burwell discusses her article on mental health on campus in an interview on Nov. 29. 

An October essay written by University President Sylvia Burwell about mental health on campus made a splash when it was published in Foreign Affairs, sparking a conversation about mental health services at AU.

The article, titled “Generation Stress,” addressed the problems that students face in terms of anxiety and mental health, a topic Burwell said she is passionate about.

Burwell, who is on the Board of Directors for the Council of Foreign Relations, which publishes Foreign Affairs, said in an interview with The Eagle that she decided to write the article when she spoke to other members on the board about the mental health of college students.

“One important issue that I felt was missing in the conversation is the mental health and well-being of our students,” Burwell said. “It was very interesting because when I brought the topic up, the CEOs agreed. You go from our campus to jobs and they’re seeing what we are seeing on our campus."

Burwell said she became interested in the topic when she started talking to students at different campus events, such as breakfasts she hosts in her office.

“They’re very articulate on why [stress] is different than say when I was in school,” Burwell said.

In her article, Burwell wrote that the three main factors of stress for students stem from safety, economics and technology. She said that these three factors are the reasons why students face more stress than students of previous generations encountered.

“One of the things I think we need to do is to continue to work on issues of financial aid and making sure that we think about that,” Burwell said. “We need to work on the issues of the economics of higher education and the fact that in higher ed, the inflation rate has been greater than the [Consumer Price Index].”

However, students believe that the University hasn’t done enough and is not cooperative when it comes to meeting people’s financial abilities. In an opinion piece published by The Eagle, columnist Sonikka Loganathan criticized Burwell for not acknowledging issues with AU’s own financial aid system.

“Yet at her own university, AU Central, which handles financial aid matters, seems to be constantly unaccommodating and grants are minimal,” Loganathan wrote.

Burwell pointed out that because of economic anxiety, students are pressured into getting multiple internships and jobs within their first year because there is an idea that the right internships will lead to the right and financially stable job.

“At All-American Weekend and in my discussions with parents at orientation, I emphasized with parents and our first-year students to please not do an internship during their first year because you will get a job,” Burwell said.

Students agreed with Burwell that the internship culture at AU contributes to increasing mental health issues.

“I think that students are pressured extensively to push themselves past the limits that they are able to go,” said junior Flip Keosheyan.

Burwell also wrote that students feel more stress than students of previous generations because they have “less resiliency and a lower appetite for risk and failure.”

Students such as Chann Cortes, a freshman, have criticized Burwell for what they see as a misinterpretation of the challenges students face.

“If anything, we’ve been forced into a more stressful environment than previous generations, so of course we’re going to be worn out and cynical,” Cortes said.

However, in the interview, Burwell said that she believes that every student faces different issues and some students do come to college with a great amount of resiliency.

“But I think a number of things that we do as parents, and I am one of those parents now, in terms of how we take care of what we do is that we need to think of what we are doing in terms of helping our children with failure,” Burwell said.

Burwell said she has proposed and implemented solutions to helping students with their mental health and becoming more resilient. These measures consist of expanding the resources for the Counseling Center, which has endured criticism from students because of long wait times and lack of adequate resources for students that need immediate care.

“We have to put our money where our mouth is and invest in the Counseling Center because right now there are a lack of resources, a lack of available counselors and a lack of funding that is really holding back the University from being able to address these issues,” Keosheyan said.

However, Burwell said that 80 percent of students are seen within five days and the result of long wait times is often due to scheduling issues. She said that despite the criticism, students are often satisfied with the care they receive.

Traci Callandrillo, the assistant vice president of campus life and the previous executive director of the Counseling Center, said one of the challenges for students is to make the decision to seek care.

“When it comes to a confidential resource like health services, the line outside the door is invisible,” Callandrillo said.“It is a difficult choice for a lot of students to take that step to seek the services.”

Along with extending counseling services, Burwell hopes to work on improving mental health issues on college campuses. She said she wants to create awareness of the issues and work with programs on campus to create a better sense of community so students can have somewhere to turn to when they are stressed.

Burwell sees AUx, a full year course for first-year students, as a preventative measure that has recently been implemented to help students transition into their first year at college while discussing themes such as budgeting, health and wellness and campus resources.

The course, however, has received a significant amount of criticism from students, with some students saying the class “adds immense unnecessary stress” due to its coursework. Burwell said she has heard about the criticism and the University is going to take every opinion into consideration when shaping the course for next year. However, she still believes it is something that will prove helpful in the long run.

“Sometimes we all have to do things that we don’t particularly like but they’re helpful to us,” Burwell said.

Overall, as president, Burwell hopes to bring more awareness to the topic of mental health and wants to destigmatize the conversations surrounding it.

“I actually think that the conversations about this issue and the awareness of it are part of helping it get to a better place,” Burwell said.

kcarolan@theeagleonline.com


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