SENATE MATTERS: When it comes to mental health issues, we all need to step up and help

University Senate president

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • More than 11 percent of college students have been diagnosed or treated for anxiety in the past year and more than 10 percent reported being diagnosed or treated for depression.
  • Almost 73 percent of students living with a mental health condition experienced a mental health crisis on campus. Yet, 34.2 percent reported that their college did not know about their crisis.
  • Overall, 40 percent of students with diagnosable mental health conditions did not seek help, and 57 percent of them did not request accommodations from their school.
  • 7 percent of college students have “seriously considered suicide” during the past year.

These are sobering statistics and Pitt is not immune from the prevalence of mental health issues affecting higher education. While the data above refer to undergraduates, there is also evidence that increasing numbers of graduate students also are experiencing high levels of anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness.

And faculty and staff are not immune to the stresses of deadlines, tenure decisions, contract renewals, malicious supervisors, etc. Indeed, NAMI reports that one in five adults experiences mental illness in a given year, myself among them.

While people have become more and more open about their mental health struggles and some of the historical stigma associated with mental illness is gradually fading away, there is still a long way to go. Destigmatizing mental illness and mental health treatment should be a priority for all of us in the University community. This is important because untreated mental illness can lead to a host of long-term health consequences, not to mention the adverse effects it has on education, job security, financial security, etc.

So, what can we do to be better teachers, colleagues, and friends? One simple step is to inquire about how our colleagues and students are doing if we know them to be under stress or having a difficult time.  Sometimes simply asking, “Are you doing OK?” can begin a conversation and let those we are talking to know we care about them as people.

Another suggestion for faculty members who supervise graduate students is to check in on them regularly.  Too often, graduate students disappear for weeks or months at a time when writing their dissertation, especially when they do not need to be on campus for their research. Students often think their work is not good enough or they are not working fast enough. Regular meetings and checking in with students can help mitigate feelings of depression and anxiety.

Finally, we should adopt the current security mantra, “If you see something, say something.” If we noticed someone bleeding from a head wound, we would not conduct a normal conversation and ignore what we see.  We need to adopt that mindset when it comes to students suffering from mental illness as well.

Untreated mental illness is an issue that affects both the people in our community and our community itself. Recognizing and acknowledging this, and working together to address it, is essential to the Pitt community (and those in it) reaching its full potential.