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Summit tackles mental-health crisis on R.I. campuses

Providence Journal - 1/8/2019

Jan. 08--PROVIDENCE -- One out of two college students in a national survey reported feeling hopeless in the last year. Nearly 65 percent said they experienced overwhelming anxiety. And 13 percent said they had seriously considered committing suicide in the past 12 months.

Those statistics, compiled by the American College Health Association in 2018, underscore the growing mental-health challenges facing college campuses across the nation. On Monday, Gov. Gina Raimondo convened a day-long summit investigating how to support the mental-health needs of college students in Rhode Island's public and private colleges.

The forum drew 150 leaders from state government and local colleges and universities, including former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the lead sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act, signed into law in 2008. Three college presidents -- Rhode Island College'sFrank Sanchez, Brown University'sChristine Paxson and Roger Williams University's interim President Andrew Workman -- participated in the event.

Raimondo was not able to attend due to illness.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, the college presidents said, is looking at mental health as a collective responsibility rather the purview of student health centers.

Students are much more likely to share their problems with people they see frequently: fellow students, support staff and faculty. That behooves colleges to train adults on how to respond to a student in crisis and how to make the appropriate resources available.

Several Rhode Island colleges are already working to expand the network of support for students struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.

Brown has placed mental health and physical health under the same organization. Roger Williams has trained 80 front-line staff and is prepared to train 80 more this year. Rhode Island College is preparing to launch a 24-hour emergency mental-health hotline where students can get immediate help.

Asked to address the culture of binge drinking on campuses, Paxson said her university takes a public health approach that involved "education, education and more education."

The popularity of Uber poses its own challenges, she said, because students can drink to excess off campus without the fear of driving drunk.

Higher education leaders were also asked how colleges can assist the victims of sexual abuse or harassment beyond the confines of the federal Title IX protections.

Acknowledging that this might be controversial, Paxson said that Brown has been offering more to support the accused, adding that the experience is also "very traumatic" for them. Some of the accused may return to Brown, she said, and the university has a responsibility to make sure that they are integrated into the community.

"More colleges are changing the way they provide academic support," Sanchez said, treating the whole student, not just his academic performance. RIC approaches academic advising from a 360-degree model, he said.

Asked what stressed them out, student panelists said their peers are under tremendous pressure to succeed, something that's specially daunting to first-generation students, who may be juggling jobs and families.

"Students have these expectations that they aren't good enough if they get a C," said Jeffrey Ellis, a student and founder of a mental-health support group at Bryant University. He said his college has a very business mindset that sometimes makes it hard for students to acknowledge their personal challenges.

"It's that stigma," he said. "People are afraid that it will show weakness" if they ask for help.

Students also said that colleges have to do a better job of reaching out to students who are from low-income families, students of color and non-traditional students who are older or supporting a family.

At Brown, students are over-committed, taking on too many activities, leaving them feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

"There is not an ingrained culture of wellness on campus," said Matthew Flathers, a peer mental-health advocate at Brown.

Students also said there aren't enough resources to treat individuals with chronic mental-health issues, adding that most treatment is short-term. Olive Swinski, a RIC student finishing her master's of social work and a peer mentor, said 42 percent of students at the college have a clinical psychiatric diagnosis.

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(c)2019 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

Visit The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.) at www.projo.com

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