It is summer, and the seemingly unending global pandemic may slowly be ending? It has been easy to be myopic over these last 18 months. With every moment so perilous and uncertain, it was hard enough to stay focused on the present and there was certainly less time for looking ahead. Now, as we begin to enter this Brave New World of post-pandemic America, it is time to once again think about the future.
In this new world, I would like to see a real commitment towards mental health. Ever since the pandemic began, people have acknowledged that the very nature of the pandemic, including the acute anxiety of both the known and unknown combined with the required social distancing that so often felt isolating, would lead to increased mental health challenges for the population. It didn’t take an advanced degree in psychology to understand that people would struggle and that those who were already struggling would not be disproportionately impacted. As someone who actually possess one of those advanced degrees, I can confirm this to be the case.
Even before the pandemic, society paid plenty of lip-service to mental health. Whenever a mass shooting occurred in the United States, which is an event that happens with alarming consistency and regularity, many politicians were quick to dismiss the impact of near-unregulated gun laws and instead often professed that the “real” issue was the inadequate mental health system that meant people in dire need of psychological supports could not access the life-saving care they needed before they “broke” and went on a violent rampage.
As a society, we have talked about the need to improve mental health for years without doing much in the way of action, especially when action would likely require substantial investment. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic looks to be getting more contained and the majority of eligible citizens have received a vaccine, people have again started to acknowledge the impact this pandemic recovery will have on an already-strained mental health system. However, once again, I am concerned that while people will be happy to cluck their tongues and express how “deeply concerned” they are about the mental well-being of the citizenry, those same people will become notably mute when it comes time to make a real investment in the mental health care system.
This is an overwhelming problem for society and any national solution will undoubtedly require the concerted efforts of much smarter (and many more) people than just myself. This is a national issue that will require national solutions. And just as mental health impacts all areas of a person’s life, the solutions will need to be just as all-encompassing. Despite what my detractors may say, I know I don’t possess the arrogance or hubris to think I have all of the answers. However, to borrow a passage from the 2009 movie, Taken, “what I do have is a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people…” who don’t want to invest in mental health.
I have worked in collegiate mental health for almost 20 years and have been a director at college counseling centers for the past decade. I have had the privilege of working with many excellent colleagues, people who truly care about the best interests of students, at a few different universities in a full range of settings (rural, urban, and suburban) with disparate demographics and population sizes. The world of higher education is one in which I am quite familiar. I have talked to many colleagues, including directors and professionals in university upper administrations throughout the country. For the most part, I have found almost everyone in these fields to be kind, compassionate, and caring. They are people who give countless hours, and unquantifiable amounts of energy, to their jobs and their desire to foster the lives of students. Overall, these are some very good people. People who care. And almost every single one of them, to a person, if posed with the question, “Do you care about the mental health issues that are impacting our students?” would all respond emphatically and with ultimate sincerity that they are aware, and are deeply concerned, by the severity and pervasiveness of the mental health issues facing college students.
Yet, obviously, the problem still exists. No matter how complex the series of ultimate solutions will need to be in order to adequately address the mental health crisis that we currently face, it is absolutely certain that the true solution will require significantly more than genuine concern by truly gifted people. That is indisputable fact. If that was all it required, the problem would not exist.
This is where I need to say how much I love and respect my current university (go Eagles!), as not only does my current university provide me with a paycheck and therefore allows me to meet my basic needs for providing an adequate life; but it is also a place that has cultivated a well-earned reputation for creating safe, embracing communities for populations that are often marginalized; such as the LGBTQIA+ community and students who identify as being on the Autism spectrum. My university is a place I am proud to call my professional home. It is my reality—where the work is satisfying and I feel respected by my peers.
But, as if often the case, reality and dreams are rarely the same thing. When I think about actually addressing the severe and pervasive mental health challenges that confront college students, I think about my Dream University—it exists outside the limiting confines of reality, in a space where acutely complex issues like finances can be broken down into more manageable “general concepts” to facilitate the discussion and where the true commitment to student’s mental health can take the primary focus.
On the surface, Dream University looks and operates similar to most other universities, but with one critical difference. At Dream University, not only does administration say that mental health is their top priority, but they operationalize that expressed value in a way I have never seen at any reality-based universities across the country.
Staffing is a challenge at every university in which I have ever been affiliated. Counseling center directors are frequently advocating for improved resources and more personnel. The most common question by upper administrators to new counseling center staffing requests is, “How do we compare to our peer institutions? What do their staffing levels look like?” While the answer to those questions may be relevant, it is notable what is not being asked, specifically, “How much staffing to we need to best serve our students?” At Dream University, they start with that last question and only ask the first two questions for informational purposes. Further, unlike any university in the real world, Dream University would rather err on the side of the counseling center being over-staffed rather than assuming the risks and consequences associated with being under-staffed. Being under-staffed can cost lives, yet I do not know of one real-world university where the director would say their staffing was consistently adequate.
In mental health circles, collegiate mental health is primarily known for one thing: inadequate compensation for the work that is required. In this way, collegiate mental health professionals and school teachers share at least one trait–it is undisputed that both professions are entrusted to protect the lives and well-being of developing humans, but both professions are compensated far less than the average accountant or mid-level business executive. This tells you everything about society’s actual priorities. At Dream University, the counseling center staff is paid at least equal to the teaching faculty. Professors are important and are compensated generously, but so is the counseling center staff. Capitalism has taught that if something is valued, it is compensated commensurately.
Finally, at Dream University, the on-boarding of students has a similar mental health emphasis. Just as is the case at many traditional universities, students are required to take a freshman seminar (FSEM) to become acclimated to the college journey and to prepare for life in the independent, adult world. However, instead of FSEMs such as “French Cinema and So” or “Disney’s America,” which are both actual examples of freshmen seminars offered at my current university, students at Dream U. focus on developing their resiliency and coping skills. While understanding the role Mickey Mouse plays in American culture may be interesting, learning to navigate the setbacks in life and continuing to develop productive coping skills is actually life-saving and leads to a healthier, better functioning population.
Unfortunately, Dream University it just that—a dream. In the meantime, I will continue to work as a director at college counseling center in the real world. It is very possible that I spend the rest of my career—just 16 short years until retirement, but who is counting?—at my current university and I could be satisfied with that choice. However, if some entrepreneur wants to develop a university where mental health is not just a talking point, but a true commitment to action and they are looking for a university president to guide them on this journey, hit me up. I’m ready to turn this dream into reality.