The Need for Mental Health Awareness in Higher Education

Guest Correspondence

Photo courtesy Ringling College: Ringling College Health Center staff table on campus in support the Resilient You campaign.

As much as college is a celebration of burgeoning adulthood and newfound freedom, it’s also a difficult time for many students—especially at the beginning, and especially in a renowned and rigorous arts institution like Ringling College of Art and Design.

Every year, we welcome a new class of mostly teenagers, many of whom have never lived away from their families before. Some of our students moved halfway across the country or around the world to attend Ringling College. Homesickness, loneliness, sadness and feelings of isolation are natural.

When you add the pressure to succeed (whether from family or self-imposed) and the crises that arise when a talented young person’s artistic abilities are held to higher standards than ever encountered before and open to academic critiques, emotions can start to spiral.

In today’s world, mental health struggles are not an outlying issue but a common part of college life—especially at high-level arts institutions. But that doesn’t mean these struggles should be accepted as a given. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but as educators, we need to always keep mental health at the forefront of our institutional mindset. 

The Healthy Minds Study demonstrates the vital need for emotional support infrastructure within all colleges. This annual survey receives approximately 100,000 respondents from 450 colleges and universities, including Ringling College and the 41 other members of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design. This study examines not just the mental health of its subjects, but their attitudes toward seeking help, utilizing services and overcoming stigmas surrounding mental health support.

The most recent HMS findings showed respondents from Ringling College and other art colleges reported higher incidents of loneliness and isolation than the overall national sample. For example, 84% of Ringling respondents and 82% of total AICAD respondents said that they sometimes or often felt isolated from others, compared to 70% in the national sample.

Even more alarming, 24% of Ringling respondents and 21% of AICAD respondents reported suicide ideation over the past year, compared to 15% of the national sample. We must acknowledge the gravity of these reports. And, we must continue to take real measures toward making mental health services not just accessible, but wholly ingrained in the college experience.

At Ringling College, we established a mental wellness, support and education network that is built into our students’ everyday lives. We also strive to make the students not just aware of these programs but comfortable using them from the earliest days of their involvement on campus. 

Our support programs are centered in our on-campus Student Health Center and the Peterson Counseling Center. There, students can access individual and group counseling, emergency psychological services and consultation with off-campus providers when specialized treatment is needed.

The Health Center has also launched the Resilient You campaign, which focuses on strength-based approaches to provide our students—as well as their families—with a set of emotional tools that can be used to cope with the many stresses that negatively affect mental health. In addition to professional counseling, Resilient You includes an emphasis on peer-to-peer support, including ways to support fellow students and consultation outlets for what to do when it seems another student is in distress.

Mental health resources are far from tokenism. These programs should be a fundamental cornerstone of higher education. Creativity, intellectual development and financial success must not come at the expense of mental health.

But awareness itself is not always enough. We cannot simply expect our students to tell us when they’re struggling or to ask for help when they need it. Mental health support should be as rooted in our institutions of higher learning as libraries and classrooms. That’s why at Ringling College, we continue to prioritize and expand programs like Resilient You, using multi-faceted, evidence-based research to provide real support for our students.

Dr. Larry Thompson is president of Ringling College of Art & Design.

Photo courtesy Ringling College: Ringling College Health Center staff table on campus in support the Resilient You campaign.

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