All across the nation, we are facing a mental health epidemic. According to the American College Health Association, colleges and universities have reported over 50 percent of their students feeling overwhelming anxiety and 32 percent of their students reporting feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” Yet, despite its widespread effects, mental health remains an under-addressed issue that is often ignored or left in secret. Even at Swarthmore, despite our liberal arts mission to encourage students to “prepare themselves for full, balanced lives,” mental health and self-care are often the ignored components of this mission. We at the Phoenix believe it is the responsibility of the college to take on the task of ensuring all students can equitably access their educations and lives.
We cannot pretend Swarthmore students are immune from these mental health issues. One can easily see this epidemic by looking at the full capacity issues within our Counseling and Psychological Services, as reported by Leo Elliot ’18 on March 17, 2016 in the Phoenix. Even with resources like CAPS, the campus still struggles to understand the severity of these problems or the need to increase our services for these issues. The Swarthmore community has students making emergency appointments with CAPS, only for these same students to return to studying in McCabe until 2am. The community has students crying in the bathroom and then returning to a seminar an hour later. Some students can barely get out of bed in the morning, yet still force themselves to turn in their problem sets or else face horrible self-criticism for not completing their assignment on time.
We at the Phoenix must emphasize that this is not healthy. It is not healthy to push one’s body to the breaking point, to recognize when one’s body and one’s mind needs to rest, but to keep forcing oneself forward anyway. Yet, students continue to push themselves past the breaking point because, on this campus, having a mental illness is not an excuse to miss class. Many students won’t even take a sick day for the flu, let alone a mental health day to take care of themselves. It is imperative that college staff and faculty recognize that feeling unsafe is a valid cause for academic accommodations. Students also need to recognize that not doing work due to serious mental health problems is not irresponsible as it is different from skipping class because they stayed up too late procrastinating. Too many students on campus feel embarrassed to admit they cannot finish all of their assignments and readings and push themselves too far. We at the Phoenix emphasize that our campus needs to reach a point where students with mental health problems feel comfortable seeking the treatment they need, even if that treatment is a simple break. Just as importantly, the broader community needs to be able to respect these decisions.
While we at the Phoenix recognize that the college has made a lot of progress with regards to increasing conversations about mental health on campus, we also recognize that many more actions need to be taken and that we are not yet a supportive and accommodating campus for people with mental health concerns on campus.
We at the Phoenix urge the college to take action in several capacities. First, the college should provide professional development for faculty and staff on supporting the mental health of students. While many professors have created individual policies for accommodating mental health issues, a professional development training would standardize this process, decreasing the frustrations felt by students when one professor may make accommodations and another is unwilling to do so. This would also help instill confidence within the student body. If students know that their professors are aware of how to handle these issues, they may be more willing to approach them with their problems instead of suffering in silence.
We at the Phoenix are aware that professors are not counselors and we are not asking for them to serve as one. Rather, we are asking that professors understand the significance of mental health issues and are able to point students to appropriate resources and self-care practices.
Furthermore, we at the Phoenix urge the college to implement more open-campus discussions around mental illness. The college should work more closely with existing mental health groups, like Speak2Swatties or support groups led by CAPS and Worth Health Center, to share these resources with more students or expand the programming provided. They could also implement more discussions through better educating Residential Assistants, Diversity Peer Advisors, or Student Academic Mentors on how to discuss mental health. Finally, mental health could be featured as a special topic during campus initiatives, like a Coffee Talk, to help bring the issue to the forefront of campus.
A mental illness is not something that can be beaten with sheer willpower. It is not something that can be wished away, but instead takes time and effort to work through. By the college taking mental health issues more seriously, not only will the students who suffer benefit, but so will the community at large. One cannot fully contribute to the campus around them if they are struggling with health issues. In order for students to receive the best education possible, and to contribute the most to campus and society, they must first have the resources to best care for their own mental health without feeling guilty for doing so.