Should we Assess Mental Health?

2015-03-14_OhNoLogo22-mark3Of the students I meet with for academic difficulty, a startling proportion of them are in their present situation due to factors related to mental health. The shape of the issue varies. Sometimes it’s the stress of seeing everyone around them succeed — struggling students tend to be quiet about their performance. Other times it’s a depression that was mild and undiagnosed in high school, but starts to take hold in college. These students want to succeed and have the capacity to, but something about college life tosses a wrench in their ability to perform academically.

That I work at a competitive research 1 institution, most all of my students excelled in high school. Anyone who’s meeting with me for academic difficulty is seeing it for the first time, and rarely do they know how to cope.

These days, I’m hearing many in the education world discussing grit — the ability to overcome struggle and bounce back from failure. We’re even using the term in our new student orientation. At the same time that we’re telling our students “we want you to challenge yourself!” they know that their GPA is the first way they’re measured for their next phase of life (grad school, med school, employers, etc). Sure, overcoming adversity sounds cool, but it sure doesn’t feel good while it’s happening, and for someone who’s always succeeded, that first “C” on an exam can feel like the first crack in the dam.

It’s probably not much of a jump to conclude that a student experiencing mental health difficulty is more likely to struggle academically. And isn’t academic success part of the role of a fair number of student affairs offices? If we could identify the students struggling with mental health, we can go a long way towards supporting them through their journey.

The challenge here is that most student affairs practitioners (myself included) are not experts at diagnosing mental issues. Balance that with the fact that we (i.e., advising, housing, etc.) are often the first to notice a student is struggling. Aren’t we also the folks charged with supporting the successful transition of our students into the college environment?

I’m not quite comfortable claiming that we can be responsible in any way for the mental health of our students, or that fewer students with mental health challenges means that we’re succeeding, but I also believe that our response and support of these students should be a part of how our success is measured.

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