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Another Voice: Colleges need attentiveness to students’ mental health

By Stephen F. Gambescia

Student suicide is at the top of the list of “what keeps college administrators up at night.”

A student committing suicide while at college makes all of us feel that we failed the test. The issue is complex. The “signs” are paradoxical. On one hand, some signs are right in front of our face. For example, when student suicide hits the school, we may respond with “I knew something wasn’t right.” On the other hand, there may be no signs, thus we feel helpless because “we just didn’t know there was a problem.”

As with any complex health issue, it deserves a “comprehensive approach” – from prevention strategies to assessment of students’ health status and needs, treatment, interdiction and crisis intervention.

One common and essential component is being attentive to students while they are on our campuses. The responsibility to help rests with all of us.

While the counseling center is the place we think students should be getting help to “deal with student issues,” these professionals with their counseling expertise actually have minimal face time compared with the multiple faces students see daily around campus and in classrooms.

Here are a few attentiveness suggestions for key people that can be considered as part of the plan to help students who are struggling with mental health issues at college.

Students (and parents): Take the decision about “college readiness” very seriously. If you don’t feel ready for college, don’t go just yet. The notion that college is a place and the time “to find yourself,” while traditionally romantic, is overstated. Colleges are complex and expensive places to find yourself. Take the time you need to decide not only where to go to college but when.

Parents: The aim is not to find “the best” college, rather to find the college that best suits your son or daughter. Help with the process of making a decision about whether it is the right time to start college. Pay attention to the high level and overall issue of college readiness, not just the sundry of temporal matters for sending them off. Once they are there, stay connected – giving them enough space to grow, but also a safety valve to change plans, if things are not going well.

Faculty: Be alert to who is missing from your classroom. Get creative with “taking roll” and follow up with those who are missing. I know taking roll in that Intro Course with 100 plus students could be tedious and time-consuming, but letting students know they are missed has a big payoff for them. Err on the side of some students who will feel chagrined that they missed your class because of last night’s party. Deep down students feel good that someone missed them.

Stephen F. Gambescia is a professor of health services administration at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He wrote this for

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