Student mental health a critical, growing issue

Regents hear why treatment must reach beyond clinics into every aspect of university life

The health and safety of students at CU is a top priority, and with suicide rates on the rise nationally and in Colorado, the Board of Regents last week heard from Matt Vogl, executive director at the National Mental Health Innovation Center at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, about what can be done to better support the community.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported suicides had increased an average of 25 percent nationally since 1999; Colorado saw a 35 percent increase in that time, Vogl said. In terms of student safety, it’s not going to get any better until the approach to mental health can focus on prevention rather than solely crisis intervention, he said.

Vogl summed up where mental health stands in the U.S. by recalling a time last February when he was speaking at the Harvard Medical School and noticed a net laced between two high sets of stairwells to discourage students from jumping to their deaths.

“This is not about cargo nets and catching students when they’ve gotten to the point of being so sick and so despondent they need to jump,” he said. “If there is one message we take away from our conversation today it is that crisis intervention is important, but it is not the only thing we can do.”

In a way, Vogl said, we are a victim of our own success in the struggle for mental health awareness.

“We’re getting what we wished for because we’re starting to win the war on the stigma, but the downside of that is we’re unprepared for floodgates that are getting opened,” he said. “The demand will always outpace the supply we can provide.”

Vogl and his team have integrated mental health topics into coursework in the Leeds School of Business the past couple of years in nine courses. They are working toward branching out into other programs across the campuses.

Already the ‘teachers’ have learned a lot from the pupils, he said. “We were frankly blown away by the ideas they had and that the assumptions that they challenged for us, saying, ‘We don’t communicate the way you think we communicate.’”

Regent Glen Gallegos, R-Grand Junction, asked how CU ensures all the campus programs don’t amount to simply “the flavor of the month.”

“We give lots of attention to it, lots of resources, we create places to go. How do we keep it from becoming the flavor of the month?” he asked. 

Don Elliman, CU Anschutz chancellor, said the need is too great for it to be a passing phase.

“As for the flavor of the month, that’s not going to happen,” he said. “I believe the numbers we are seeing now are almost certainly going to get worse. At some level, faculty and staff can’t solve this problem. The students have to be a part of the solution, and students helping students has to be a huge part of how we address these things.”

Vogl agreed.

“We need to move this out of the traditional mental health clinic on campus, saying it’s up to the counseling center to solve these problems – it’s not,” Vogl said. “They’re part of the solution, but it’s only going to change when the regents and senior administration put ourselves out there. We have to make a strong organizational commitment to it.”

Training students, faculty and staff on how to recognize when someone is struggling, what to say and what to do is the first step in making the organizational commitment, he said.

Michael Lightner, vice president of academic affairs, said the conversation has to take place peer-to-peer students, peer-to-peer faculty and peer-to-peer staff.

“I have had students come into our offices with drug issues, with eating disorders, with a variety of challenges and we don’t necessarily know what to do, what to say,” Lightner said. “This is an issue for the community, and that’s the thing that has to drive this not being the flavor of the month. We’re all involved in it, we all see it, we’re all impacted by it and it has to be something we all own.”

Phil DiStefano, CU Boulder chancellor, said mental health education begins long before students arrive on campus.

“We no longer have mandatory summer orientation; there are optional orientations,” he said. “We actually begin as soon as the student has confirmed, and start to work with the student and start giving them information about the university, including issues like our student services.”

CU is working toward being a leader in the area of mental health, Vogl said. The Colorado School of Public Health at CU Anschutz is about to become only the sixth school of public health in the country with an emphasis on mental health, he said. But there’s more to be done.

Regent Heidi Ganahl, R-Superior, asked about the role of parents in the discussions. Vogl said their role is crucial.

“Parents are a big part of the reason we are in the mess we’re in right now, so they have to be part of the solution,” he said. “We’re still having the generation of helicopter parents who have been solving all the problems for our kids in high school and then they arrive on our doorstep and very often they lack the resiliency and they lack the skills they need to navigate.”

The discussion, which was the board’s emerging issues topic during the June 21-22 meeting at CU Boulder, concluded much more emphasis and many more resources will be needed to battle mental illness on CU’s campuses, whether it be through the Legislature, fees or other means.

“The numbers are staggering: It’s like wallpaper,” Elliman said. “We’ve probably tripled the money we’re spending. But it’s crisis intervention and we need to look downstream. We’re not ducking from this. If anything, we’re raising the profile of recognizing that we know it’s an enormous problem, and it seems to be getting worse.”