Grand Valley leaders are taking a proactive stance to help the growing number of students trying to cope with depression and other mental health illnesses.

Barbara Palombi, director of the Counseling and Career Development Center, said her staff has seen a 5 to 6 percent annual increase in the number of students seeking help. The majority of student visits are to address anxiety, depression and mood disorders, she said.

Not only has the number of student clients increased, but their situations have grown more intense. There has been a marked increase in students cutting or burning themselves and talking of suicide. In 2004 the university's critical response team handled 25 campus incidents; in 2005, that number jumped to 65.

"Five years ago, we might have hospitalized two or three students a year," Palombi said. "This year, we have hospitalized or referred for hospitalization 12 students in the fall semester alone."

What's happening on campus reflects what colleges across the country are experiencing. A survey conducted by the American College Health Association reported that 63 percent of college students said they feel hopeless at times. Forty-five percent said they were depressed to the point of having trouble functioning. Ten percent had seriously considered suicide. Last year there were 1,100 student suicides on college campuses nationwide, including one at Grand Valley during fall semester. Near the site of the student's death, a campus bridge bears messages and tributes from friends.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nine out of 10 students who committed suicide suffered from a mental illness, most often depression. It is estimated that 15 percent of college students suffer from depression, which is treatable, but two out of three never seek help.

The NIMH defines clinical depression as more than sad feelings or "the blues." It is a serious medical condition that causes persistent changes in a person's mood, behavior and feelings. Manic depression, also called bipolar depression, causes alternate cycles of depression and manic elation.

"We need to remove the stigma many people associate with mental illness and talk openly about it if we're going to make progress in crisis intervention and prevention," said Barbara Bergers, director of Public Safety Services.

Dr. Richard Kadison, chief of Mental Health Services at Harvard University, co-authored a book, College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do about It. He is alarmed not only by these growing trends, but the fact that some educational institutions don't feel it is their place to get involved in the emotional development and well-being of their students.

Grand Valley's proactive stance aids students by involving many departments and trying to reach students, faculty and staff.

What is being done?

A Behavior Review Team, consisting of representatives from four departments (Dean of Students, Public Safety, Housing, Counseling Center), works together to coordinate education, prevention and intervention efforts on campus.

The Counseling Center staff includes certified psychologists and a psychiatrist to diagnose and treat students with mental health problems. The center has a variety of services like offering light boxes to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder, music therapy and massage for relaxation, group and individual counseling, and referrals to local mental health agencies.

"We also try to educate people on ways they can respectfully reach out to others in need of help and suggest they get help," said Palombi. "We've developed a referral guide for faculty and staff and will add it to our Web site, along with a guide for parents."

The site, www.gvsu.edu/counsel, provides links to confidential self assessment tests for depression, bi-polar, eating disorders and more. A link is also provided to Ulifeline, another free online resource to mental health information. While not a substitute for an official diagnosis, these tools help students wondering if they should seek help, or those looking to help others.

"Forty percent of our clients who come seeking career counseling become personal counseling clients," Palombi said. "They use the opportunity as a back-door entrance for help."

Cause and effect

Research shows that the onset of depression begins in the teen years and increases through the mid-20s. If it has not been diagnosed, students are often frightened by symptoms. Yet, earlier diagnoses and modern medications are also contributing factors to the increasing number of incidents on campuses, Palombi said.

In past years, many high school students suffering from mental illnesses never went to college. Now, after diagnosis and treatment, many are able to move forward in their lives, she said. Ideally, students arrive on campus with coping skills in place, including a routine and support systems.

"Our application for university housing provides an opportunity to share information about any physical or medical conditions, and current medication," said Andrew Beachnau, director of Housing, Residence Life and Health Services. "Where we used to see an occasional mention of inhalers for asthma, or insulin for diabetes, we are seeing more medications to treat depression or other mental health conditions."

The No. 1 problem on campus is alcohol use and abuse. For students with depression, this could become particularly dangerous when they mix alcohol with prescription drugs, or stop their medication to experiment with alcohol. Without their medication, other problems could intensify, sometimes with disastrous results.

"We don't punish people for being unwell, but we do expect positive self-care," Beachnau said. "Part of a student's success is knowing when and where to ask for help."

The Dean of Students Office serves as an information resource and problem solving center for students and faculty.

"We're always looking at how we intervene or confront behavior problems," said Vice Provost and Dean of Students Bart Merkle. "We look at what is necessary and appropriate. For example, in extreme alcohol situations, we'll have a meeting with the student to spell out what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior on campus. At the same time we convey our concern for their well-being and success. We'll help them get the services they need, but expect them to take responsibility for their behavior."

Merkle said one function of the review team is to share information when a student is having problems. He stressed that confidentiality is paramount. While the team shares information about a student with the Counseling Center, it is not a reciprocal arrangement. There are many students who have sought help on their own from the Counseling Center and remain unknown to the team, he said.

"Sometimes students will sign a release to allow information from their counseling sessions to be shared with others in a team approach to solutions," Merkle said. "The only time we must breach confidentiality is if they are a threat to themselves or others."

Education and prevention

Armed with knowledge and resources, many crisis situations can be prevented and mental illness can be treated. Grand Valley continually strives to educate and inform students, faculty and staff. A Peer Education Program provides a two-semester internship with interactive workshops. Outreach programs have been presented to campus fraternities and sororities. Other programs are aimed at faculty and staff members.

"We serviced more than 530 students during fall semester with a variety of workshops," said Eric Klingensmith, Counseling Center coordinator of crisis intervention. "Freshmen go through a lot of adjustments anyway, so it may not be as obvious when they are having serious problems."

All housing staff members have been trained in crisis intervention, aftercare and self-care. "Students can approach their resident assistant or multicultural assistant to discuss a problem and learn where to find help," Beachnau said. "Just as important, our housing staff has been trained to watch for and recognize signs of problems before they become a crisis."

Associate Dean of Students and licensed psychologist Diana Pace agreed. "Sometimes depression doesn't look like depression to the person experiencing it," she said. "They may blame what they are going through on external conditions such as difficult classes or roommate issues, rather than recognizing that severe depression is interfering with their ability to function."

Pace said there is still a stigma of mental health issues being some sort of weakness in a person's character. Yet, if people realized that there is a physical reason for these difficulties, they would be more accepting. "It is no different than going to an eye doctor for vision problems," she said.

When students are having serious difficulties their behavior not only affects them, but everyone who interacts with them. The older the student the more impact they have on others, because of the higher number of interactions and relationships they've developed since starting college. Housing and Counseling staff sometimes have to deal with this secondary population, especially after a critical incident, such as the death of a student or faculty member, an alcohol or drug overdose, or an act of violence.

"For the most part, we have students who are striving toward achieving their goals, or even determining what those goals are," Merkle said. "There's a small element of the campus community that is more challenging. Our goal is to keep educating and assisting all students to help them reach their full potential."

If you or someone you know is suicidal at GVSU, you can:

  • Talk to a counselor by calling (616) 331-3266
  • Call Public Safety at (616) 331-3255
  • Contact your RA/MA or Housing staff
  • Talk to a professor
  • Call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)

Warning signs of suicide:

  • They may talk about suicide and sound helpless and hopeless
  • They may prepare for their death by making a will, giving away possessions, or by saying good-bye
  • They may make sudden changes in their personality, eating, sleeping, or sexual habits
  • They may be deeply depressed
  • They may show a sudden lift in spirits - this is because they are relieved that their problems will soon be ending.

Campus resources:

The Counseling Center
online at www.gvsu.edu/counsel
Allendale Campus (616) 331-3266
located at 204 Student Services Building

Pew Grand Rapids Campus
(616) 331-3266 located at 116 B DeVos Center

Holland Meijer Campus
(616) 331-3910
located at 515 S. Waverly Road

Public Safety (616) 331-3255
or online at www.gvsu.edu/publicsafety

Dean of Students (616) 331-3585
located at 202 Student Services Building,
online information at www.gvsu.edu/dos includes lakerhelplink with information on
a variety of wellness and service topics

Housing Office (616) 331-2120
or www.gvsu.edu/housing includes information about Passport, for students desiring an alcohol
and drug-free living experience.

Additional resources:

The American Foundation for
Suicide Prevention www.afsp.org

National Mental Health Association
www.nmha.org

National Institute of Mental Health
www.nimh.nih.gov

Book:

College of the Overwhelmed: The Campus Mental Health Crisis and What to Do About It,
by Dr. Richard Kadison, available from GVSU library or bookstores

Video:

"The Truth About Suicide,"
available through the GVSU Counseling Center.

Page last modified July 22, 2011