Beyond the Stigma: Mental health challenges at college during a pandemic (Commentary)

Jim Malatras has been the chancellor of the State University of New York system since August 2020. From July 2019 until his appointment as chancellor, he was president of SUNY’s Empire State College.

There is often a lot of pressure and anxiety that comes with being a college student. While mental health issues among college students are not new, the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating them. In a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in late June, 63% of 18-to-24-year-olds reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and the prevalence of depression among graduate and professional students is two times higher in 2020 compared to 2019.

But like the great diversity of our students at one of our 64 campuses across the state, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Institutions must enlist health professionals in their community, maximize touchpoints and support layers, mobilize young people who want to help, aggressively raise awareness about available services, and leverage the technological platforms where young people feel comfortable. Issues vary, so we must offer a wide range of services, and work strategically to break down the barriers that stand between students and accessing those services, when and where they need them.

As Chancellor of the State University of New York—the nation’s largest public university system—I was recently joined by our Board of Trustees where we proudly unveiled our comprehensive plan Reach Out SUNY program developed by health experts to expand mental health and wellness services for our students, with a particular focus on eliminating the unseen hurdles to various tiers of intervention. Whether you are in crisis, need consistent long-term counseling for a specific issue, or simply feel down and need someone to talk to—SUNY is clearing a path to care.

First, with Covid-19 displacing some of our students geographically and limiting access to in-person services, we are flipping the script and bringing SUNY physicians, psychiatrists, and nurse practitioners to more students via secure tele-counseling. By establishing a second tele-counseling hub at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University after the highly successful initial hub at SUNY Upstate Medical University, we will cut down wait times and connect more students with professional help, no matter where they are.

We also understand that sometimes students simply want to talk to their peers. That is why we expanded the University at Albany’s peer-to-peer hotline geared toward students who may simply need someone to talk through a problem with. The phone lines are manned by students trained to assess classmates’ well-being and, if necessary, link them with professional help. Peers at the University at Albany have engaged in nearly 10,000 wellbeing calls from classmates since the onset of the pandemic. Now at the disposal of students system-wide, these peer assistants offer reassurance and perspective, often preventing minor issues from spiraling into something more serious.

Thanks to a new partnership, our students can now access Thriving Campus, an easy to use app that connects them with a network of more than 6,000 licensed mental health service providers. The app organizes providers by location, specialization, and availability.

Some have asked — couldn’t students locate this information through a simple Google search?

Not necessarily. The process of finding the appropriate care can be overwhelming. Reaching out for help only to learn that a practice is no longer taking new patients or doesn’t offer the specialized care you need just compounds the stressors that you are already facing. Blaming themselves, many young people give up their search and suffer on as their issues worsen. We cannot let them slip through the cracks.

With usability mirroring other popular apps, Thriving Campus will feel familiar. It takes out the guesswork out and guides students through what can be a daunting and arduous process. The app offers tips for picking the right provider and supplies a script for reaching out to providers via phone—the critical first step known to trigger anxiety.

Our #ReachOutSUNY campaign will tackle the biggest barrier of all: the stigma associated with seeking help. Our society has made progress in recent years, but we still have a long way to go. All of these services mean nothing if we don’t create an environment where students feel safe picking up the phone or clicking on an app as a first step of getting help. Through #ReachOutSUNY, we will educate our students about available services and normalize the process of asking for help and receiving care.

#ReachOutSUNY will promote our 24/7 crisis text line. Established in May in tandem with the New York State Office of Mental Health, the crisis text line is our first line of defense for students dealing thoughts of suicide, domestic violence, depression, school and social stressors, and anxiety associated with Covid-19.

The campaign will also urge students, faculty, and staff to sign up for our online Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) training. Since May, QPR has taught hundreds of students, faculty, and staff how to recognize and engage with someone experiencing severe emotional distress and suicidal thoughts. You don’t need any clinical training—just a willingness to listen, care, and help. We’re not just students, faculty, and staff; we are a family. And family always looks out for each other.

Covid -19 as impacted many in our SUNY community. SUNY’s mental health services expansion will simplify the process of finding help, bring tele-counseling and peer counseling to students no matter where they are, and work to shatter the stigma that prevents people in pain from reaching out. We want you to know: it’s OK to feel overwhelmed. To struggle. To not be OK. Just know that we have people who are trained to listen, who care, who will never judge, and who can help you get better.

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