College campuses failing to fully decode mental illness

The Wharton School of Business on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

The Wharton School of Business on the University of Pennsylvania campus. (Emma Lee/WHY)

A familiar refrain echoed across the University of Pennsylvania campus this fall, as students, faculty, and President Amy Gutmann convened to ask questions and find answers to the Ivy League institution’s unshakeable battle with mental health issues.

The Oct. 30 town hall was an opportunity to face, head-on, the alarming rate of student suicides, with 14 lives tragically ending in the past four years.

Time will tell if the conversation falls on deaf ears. But right now, this frightening pattern is becoming the status quo.

The problem facing Penn is a microcosm of mental health on college campuses nationwide.

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In 2016, the American College Health Association, a national advocacy group, surveyed more than 33,000 students from 51 universities and found more than 20 percent had reported feeling “hopeless” within the prior two-week period.

Academia, known at times for fostering innovation and creativity, is also casually slow and bureaucratic when it comes to implementing much-needed radical change. As a military veteran, I also come from an institution with rigid organizational dynamics.

Six years in the U.S. Army and a tour of duty in Iraq gave me priceless experience and the opportunity to serve alongside courageous servicemen and women. Returning home was a different kind of challenge, and some of my strongest soldiers had difficulty adjusting to civilian life.

When it comes to treatment, a stigma still exists. Veterans, for example, “know the drill” when they return home — answer a few questions, check a couple of boxes, and you’re fit and ready to integrate back into society.

Being undiagnosed is common. Being inaccurately or incompletely treated also occurs with regularity.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) concluded that one-fifth of patients quit mental health treatment prematurely. Of those who drop out, 70 percent do so after just one or two sessions.

College campuses know the statistics, but many have failed to take proper action. The first step is to allocate more resources — both personnel and technology — to reach a disconnected student population.

Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) has come under fire as of late for the amount of ambiguity with their program. There’s no defined start and end point for students who engage with counselors, and it is difficult to identify those who might be vulnerable to high stress.

Everyone should be encouraged to pursue regular check-ups, as is often the case with physical examinations. It’s also being proven more each day that technology can aid treatment, retention, and the recovery process. Campus officials need to be available at the touch of a smartphone screen and should be working closer with family physicians to share information.

Wearable devices have also become more precise and accurate, and are able to measure different physiological data points. Companies like Headspace offer guided meditation and relaxation sessions through a convenient app. This type of technology is becoming more widespread, and should be considered part of the solution.

It’s time to revamp an antiquated system and leverage the power of technology, when appropriate. College campuses need to move from dialogue to tangible action — and quickly — before another senseless loss shortens a promising young life.

Chris Molaro, CEO and founder of NeuroFlow, a technology company that helps measure and track neurological and physical manifestations of mental illness.

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