Saturday, December 17, 2011

students and their mental health

There was an interesting article earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal, on mental health concerns in college students. It's no secret that mental illness often has an onset in the late teens and early twenties. It's also not a surprise that there are significant stressors associated with college (or graduate school), including being in a new environment w/ a different (possibly much smaller) social support structure, the pressure to succeed academically, the need to budget time much more self-sufficiently than at previous stages of life, and simple things like lack of sleep. As a result, sometimes as a faculty member you come across students who have real problems.

In undergrads, often these issues manifest as persistent erratic or academically self-destructive behavior (failure to hand in assignments, failure to show up for exams). Different faculty members have various ways to deal with this. One approach is to be hands-off - from the privacy and social boundaries perspective, it's challenging to inquire about these behaviors (is a student just having a tough time in college or in a particular class, or is a student afflicted with a debilitating mental health issue, or are is the student somewhere on the continuum in between). The sink-or-swim attitude doesn't really sit well with me, but it's always a challenge to figure out the best way to handle this stuff.

In grad students, these issues can become even more critical - students are older, expectations of self-sufficiency are much higher, and the interactions between faculty and students are somewhere between teacher/student, boss/employee, and collaborator/collaborator. The most important thing, of course, is to ensure that at the end of the day the student is healthy, regardless of degree progress. If the right answer is that a student should take time off or drop out of a program for treatment or convalescence, then that's what has to happen. Of course, it's never that simple, for the student, for the advisor, for the university.

Anyway, I suggest reading the WSJ article if you have access. It's quite thought-provoking.


Anonymous said...

This is a particularly tricky issue for international students since they need to be enrolled full-time during the two long semesters or otherwise they are out of immigration status. It's not like it's the end of the world since the student can regularize the status but not before a long administrative and stressful process that will only add to the already stressed student. I know quite a few international grad students that would've taken a semester off if it hadn't been for visa issues.

Douglas Natelson said...

Anon, I agree. Moreover, international students are under considerably extra stress. They're often thousands of miles from home, in a country with a different culture and language, and making friends can be hard. I'm no expert, but it wouldn't surprise me if some people on the continuum between healthy and debilitatingly ill can go either way, depending on their stress and social support structure. (Other people have biochemical imbalances, etc., that unfortunately lead to serious symptoms even under the best of circumstances.)

Lauren Heilbrunn said...

I definitely agree that college is a stressful time and I read the WSJ article last week, having a hard time believing that mental health issues could be considered an unacceptable excuse. They are so pervasive, and really do influence performance in school. I found out about this great website, which helps college students deal with some of the typical college stresses before they get pervasive. This in addition to a movement for psychological first responders can be really valuable!

Carl Brannen said...

The good news is that Obama's health care plan mandates coverage for mental health for graduate student health insurance. The bad news is that this substantially increases the cost of the plan and my university, Washington State, is likely to cancel the coverage or charge students for it (as the state does not have the money):

Douglas Natelson said...

lheilbrunn, the challenge is in figuring out where the dividing line is between mental health issues and the flaky end of the distribution of personalities. I hope that all reasonable people would agree that genuine mental health issues are a legitimate medical excuse. (Though that still raises the question about how to handle them. For example, I can't just excuse missed assignment after missed assignment - it would be much better for a student to take a medical withdrawal in that situation.)

Carl, you bring up a very important issue. I wish I had some good insights into how better to handle the insurance challenges associated w/ mental health in particular and grad school in general.