Last year, 58.6 percent of college students surveyed by the National College Health Assessment expressed feeling “overwhelming anxiety” in the last 12 months. Of college students surveyed, 36.1 percent “felt so depressed it was difficult to function.” At Georgetown University, we can see the clench of anxiety or ache of depression revealing itself in quiet ways in the people around us. The NCHA survey confirms just how many of our peers suffer from mental health challenges.
Strengthening our campus infrastructure to resolve specific obstacles will allow Georgetown to more effectively combat the challenges of mental health. But we must also make a commitment to addressing mental health concerns through our student culture.
For the last five months, the Mental Health Advisory Board, a coalition of students and administrators chartered by the Division of Student Affairs to engage with mental health obstacles on campus, focused on the voluntary medical leave of absence system. MHAB identified that two of the most significant challenges for students returning to campus after a medical leave are a lack of consistent support and a lack of multifaceted support opportunities.
The board took to enacting changes that benefit both returning students and those who still consistently struggle in their daily lives. Returning students have access to the Student Outreach and Support group where a clinician provides them with consistent care as they navigate the return process. Counseling and Psychiatric Services has also made significant improvements. Not only does CAPS offer a group session for students returning from medical leaves, other services such as first appointment and referrals are still free for all. In addition, CAPS will also require a more affordable copay of $10 for additional psychotherapy or $15 for psychiatric support is the entire fee.
One of the limitations to mental health improvements has been the complexity of the system, making it challenging for students, particularly those in crisis, to understand how to access resources. To mitigate this challenge, the “Counseling and Mental Health” section of the Georgetown website now includes a list of on-campus mental health and wellness resources to help students parse through their available options.
A mentally healthy Hilltop requires more than administrative reform, however. We will have better mental health when we build a culture of Hoyas committed to supporting fellow Hoyas. This is not mere conjecture. A study conducted within our own psychology department demonstrated that the single biggest variable in determining how first year students adjusted to college was the strength of the students’ peer support system.
Currently, there are some initiatives that contribute to this long-term goal. On the student side, Project Lighthouse — an online chat and support system run by students — is back in operation for the fall semester. Project Lighthouse allows students to access an anonymous support system to chat with a Project Lighthouse peer supporter, another undergraduate student. The Georgetown University Student Association Mental Health Policy Team is preparing for its “Mental Health Open Forum.” Undergraduates will be able to hold dialogue with student health administrators in late October, contributing to an ongoing discussion of how, on every level, our mental health culture can be improved.
Building a culture of support starts small. A first step would be checking in with one’s roommates or friends to make sure they are taking care of themselves. As we saw from the NCHA data, there is a significant disparity between the number of people we think are doing okay and the number of people who actually are. Over the coming months and years we have to take a hard look at what we prioritize within our student culture and determine what values we want to foster within ourselves and within our peer groups.
An underrated motto of Georgetown is “Utraque unum,” “Many into one.” Hilltop residents are many, and, as the numbers and countless personal experiences show, many of us have been through challenging times during our years here. But while we are many, we can also be one. And as one, we can take the next steps toward raising our university to be the school that it can be.
William Emery is a sophomore in the College. He is the student chair of the Mental Health Advisory Board.