Many people don’t want to talk about them; others don’t know how to talk about them. Unlike other diseases that have more tangible effects, mental illnesses are often health concerns that go unnoticed and untreated, especially on college campuses. As part of its ongoing Michigan Healthy Community Initiative, the University is making a new push to address this growing problem with two new programs to reduce the social stigma surrounding mental illnesses: Understanding U and MiTalk. If the University is hoping to improve understanding and treatment of mental illnesses, these can’t be the last of its changes.Following the model of popular self-diagnosing Internet programs like WebMD as well as offering other information resources, the University’s newest programs – Understanding U and MiTalk (pronounced “my talk”) – are specifically aimed at increasing awareness of mental health issues. Understanding U is designed to educate University faculty, employees and supervisors about the warning signs of mental illness. MiTalk, which was also launched this month, is a similar program for students. Both programs emphasize anonymity by keeping the focus online and not in person.
While noble in their goal, these two programs face a growing problem that they can’t handle alone. According to a 2006 survey by the National College Health Assessment, more than 42 percent of all college students experience depression so severe that it makes it difficult for them to function. Almost ten percent of students have considered suicide. Many of these students don’t get the necessary treatment. In 2005, the Healthy Minds Study surveyed 2,840 University of Michigan undergraduates and found that less than 50 percent of the respondents with serious depression had been treated for this problem in the preceding year.
For afflicted students, these mental illnesses are crippling. They make it difficult to focus and hard to engage with others. As exemplified by the tragedy at Virginia Tech in April 2007 – where a mentally ill student killed 32 people – poorly treated or untreated mental illnesses can be also dangerous to the rest of campus. Treating the growing number of students who might need help requires first convincing them that it is OK to seek help and then making the necessary resources available to them.
Besides the two new Internet programs, the University can reduce the barrier of stigmatization by eliminating its policy allowing students to be expelled if they admit to being suicidal. While this involuntary-leave policy is justified as a public safety and liability concern and is only considered a last option, the unintended consequence of having this policy is that it gives seriously ill students a reason to downplay their problems. This is the wrong message to send students.
Reducing stigma is only half the battle. While the University has an excellent treatment resource, Counseling and Psychological Services, the current process for students to receive care from CAPS is sometimes a slow one. According to the CAPS website, “the wait for an open appointment can stretch from 10-15 business days.” Even though emergency consultation is available for walk-in patients and after business hours students can talk to an emergency counselor, students might not seek this many resources out. It is already difficult for students to take the first leap and ask for an appointment, waiting two weeks is too long. Further, CAPS is based on a “brief treatment model,” meaning they want patients to move on to a private clinic outside of the University if long-term treatment is needed. For some, this can be too expensive, especially for uninsured students.
It has taken a tragedy at Virginia Tech for colleges across the country to rethink their mental health services. It shouldn’t take another here in Ann Arbor for the University to rethink parts of its services.