Opinion: Don’t blame students for requesting better access to mental healthcare

AU’s email regarding counseling services deflects the problem onto students

Opinion: Don’t blame students for requesting better access to mental healthcare
Lauren Patetta is a staff columnist for The Eagle

I like to compare my anxiety disorder to a spiral. It coils around my heart, and on a good day, it’s relaxed, hanging loosely around it. There are other days, though, when the coil winds itself tight around my chest, making it hard to breathe and work and do any of the countless other activities of an AU student. Those days were the reason I sought out the Counseling Center at AU – but I quickly learned that it would be three weeks before an intake appointment.  

I am not the only college student who deals with mental illness. A 2013 survey from the American Psychological Association, which actually included participants from AU, found that 41.6 percent of the students surveyed struggled with anxiety and 36.4 percent reported struggles with depression. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., but for people between the ages of 10 and 34, it is the second. Other studies have noted that the rate of mental illness in young adults has risen dramatically over the past decade. Given this, it’s no surprise that the Counseling Center is overbooked; students on campus are reaching out to the only resource they have.

The increase in student mental illness rates – which President Burwell noted last year in her essay for Foreign Affairs Magazine – is what makes the administration’s most recent email to students particularly reprehensible.

In the email, Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence Fanta Aw writes that “many students have expressed concerns over access to mental healthcare” and that “this is feedback [AU officials] take very seriously.” Then, contrary to that point, she goes to list the statistics of students who failed to show up at appointments this past semester, saying that “20 percent of all appointments made at the Counseling Center this fall were not attended.” She does not discuss what is being done to improve access to mental healthcare, nor does she give any indication that the University is actually taking the issue seriously. 

The message boils down to this: the University's failure to provide inadequate access to mental healthcare isn’t our fault, it’s the administration's. 

The tone is incredibly dismissive, especially for addressing such a prevalent and serious issue. The email ignores the concerns of the 80 percent of students who did show up to appointments. It fails to offer solutions to the lengthy wait times, the restricted amount of counseling sessions students are given, or the cost of off-campus therapy once those sessions are finished. It is notably silent about the necessity for a more diverse counseling staff to best meet the needs of minority groups on campus. And although I had an incredibly positive experience with my therapist at the center, others on campus have made it clear that they do not feel the same. 

This is not the first time the AU administration has taken a questionable stance on mental healthcare at the University. They’ve failed to implement improvements that students have been advocating for. President Burwell’s essay last year received criticism for blaming mental illness on our lack of “resiliency and a lower appetite for risk and failure.” 

All of these responses stem from one core problem surrounding mental healthcare debates. It’s the idea that mental illness is not valid, that it does not need to be taken as seriously as, say, a physical injury. This mentality seems to be the underlying current that drives the administration’s actions – or, more accurately, inactions – regarding mental health services. 

If the administration viewed mental illness as a valid health problem that requires immediate and thoughtful assistance, they’d be less likely to throw the blame on students for not showing up to sessions. Hopefully, they’d be more likely to treat it with the urgency it demands. It’d be unthinkable to tell someone with the flu to wait a month to visit the health center, so why is it acceptable when it comes to our mental health, especially when it’s such a prevalent problem on campus? I’m not saying that everyone in the AU administration doesn’t care about mental illness, but that’s the message they’re sending with emails like this. It’s the message that I received countless times while seeking treatment for my anxiety and was told to “stop being dramatic.” 

These problems can’t be solved overnight, I understand that. I also understand that it’s likely difficult to hire new counselors, because mental illness is a tricky problem, and they want only the strongest candidates to make it through. But there is little to no effort being made on part of the administration to actually begin the process. The University received a $8 million dollars last semester to improve our athletics facility. If we can receive donations for athletics facilities, it would be great to see someone ask for contributions towards mental health services as well.

Rather than blame students, the University needs to listen, then actively work to address issues we bring up. It’s time that AU gets out of the mindset that mental illness and its struggles can be brushed aside and deflected onto those suffering from it.

Lauren Patetta is a junior in the School of Communication and the former assistant editor for the opinion section.

lpatetta@theeagleonline.com 

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