Why is student mental health at Georgia Tech and other schools worsening?

A Campus Culture Action Team Report said a sense of loss among Georgia Tech students has been normalized within the institute to create “shared despair.”

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A Campus Culture Action Team Report said a sense of loss among Georgia Tech students has been normalized within the institute to create “shared despair.”

Collin Spencer is a third-year biology major at Georgia Tech where he has served as a member of President G.P. “Bud” Peterson’s Campus Culture Action Team and as director of the Mental Health Student Coalition.

After Collin and I exchanged emails about the deaths of two Georgia Tech students to suicide, I asked him to write about the efforts underway on campus  to help students and what more needs to occur.

Collin manages the Intercollegiate Mental Health Conference for Georgia Tech and oversees the allocation of a million-dollar fund for mental health as chair of the Joint Allocations Committee. He intends to pursue further graduate studies in public policy.

Georgia Tech has long had a reputation as a school that demands excellence and where students work night and day to meet that expectation. While school leaders have been working to create a more holistic and humane culture, Collin says there is more to do to address what one report called a “shared despair.”

Georgia Tech is not alone. Campuses across the country are grappling with a rise in suicides and depression. Today, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. (Traffic accidents is first.)

As The New York Times reported:

According to the National College Health Assessment, there's been a dramatic increase in the number of students suffering from depression — to 40.2 percent last year nationwide from 32.6 percent in 2013. Likewise, during that same period, there has been an increase in those thinking about suicide, to 11.5 percent from 8.1 percent, and those attempting suicide, to 1.7 percent from 1.3 percent, during the same period. About one student in 12 has a suicide plan.

For the seventh year in a row, college counseling centers report an increase in the number of students seeking treatment who represent "threat-to-self," according to this year's report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. Many institutions of higher learning are struggling to keep up with the demand.

With that background, here is Collin’s column.

By Collin Spencer

I have struggled in the past with my mental health. Georgia Tech’s Counseling Center helped me heal, and I subsequently became involved in student leadership to advocate for those who struggle in silence.

Servant leadership in mental health matters to me not just because it gives my life purpose—but because it gives my suffering purpose. Losing any member of a community is a tragedy; to lose two in the span of a week as occurred recently at Georgia Tech suggests a greater systemic illness.

Depression alone is estimated to affect 36 percent of college students. Most common mental health problems are biological illnesses rooted in dysregulation of stress response systems. Repeated exposure to stress leads to alterations in everything from gene expression to brain structure. Nobody is born with depression per se, but rather vulnerabilities that interact with repeated psychosocial stress to produce clinical symptoms.

This means common mental illness is preventable, to a degree, through the creation of safe and supportive environments for students. An increased prevalence of attempted suicides and demand on mental health services are symptoms of how “learning environments established by some members of the Georgia Tech instructional community fall short of the ideals of civility, collegiality and respect,” according to the 2015 Task Force on the Learning Environment.

College is a breeding ground for trauma and stress. Professors at Georgia Tech are incentivized to publish or perish in a competitive academic environment that fosters loss. The threat of losing reputation and social standing is one of the factors most likely to cause depression. This projects onto the classroom to produce further loss due to lack of respect for students and time for instruction.

Superb instruction and healthy learning environments do exist at Tech, yet most of my peers have had at least one class where academic rigor borders on cruelty. Some teachers will create exams students fail only to later curve the class multiple letter grades or change grading schemes in the middle of the semester.

This power dynamic results in students who feel helpless against a larger system. A Campus Culture Action Team Report said this sense of loss among students has been normalized within the institute to create “shared despair.”

Lack of sleep and workaholism have become badges of pride and social norms, a means to numb the collective conscience against systemic stress. This is readily apparent in colloquial expressions on campus: students do not graduate from Georgia Tech, they “get out.”

The 2015 Task Force for the Learning Environment produced a wealth of action items to combat a toxic culture—there has not been an update made available since January 2017.

Georgia Tech student Collin Spencer has served as a member of President G.P. “Bud” Peterson’s Campus Culture Action Team and as director of the Mental Health Student Coalition.

President Peterson created the Path Forward Advisory Group to make changes and improve the campus culture. The process has been slow, but significant progress is being made.

We know that depression is rampant on college campuses, facilitated by undue psychosocial stress, and preventable through incentivization of healthy learning environments. The question, then, becomes why hasn’t more been done so far and why does it appear to be getting worse?

It is difficult to tease apart causality. More students arrive at Georgia Tech with psychiatric illnesses each year, yet more are also subsequently diagnosed with mental illness after their arrival. This results in a schism between student leaders, clinicians, and administrators, who each present a valid perspective on their responsibility (or lack thereof) to provide care for students with mental illness.

These conversations are necessary for a pragmatic approach, but each party should always strive to improve mental health. Mental health is the responsibility of the entire community—not any singular unit.

Individual behavior also reflects institutional culture. Symptoms of depression are apparent within the larger functioning of Georgia Tech. A sense of “shared despair,” limited agility in executive functioning to rapidly implement recommendations, perfectionism, and hypersensitivity to rejection/criticism are thematic across Georgia Tech, as at our peer colleges.

However, this does not mean Georgia Tech has not made efforts to improve mental health. The creation of various action teams and task forces, a million-dollar fund for mental health initiatives, and overall support of student ideas demonstrate clear concern for student wellbeing.

But efforts tend to focus on developing and implementing internal solutions. As such, Tech has isolated itself from the local and national mental health community. This mental health crisis is not unique to Tech, yet we have not collaborated extensively with outside experts or institutions. We are potentially reinventing the wheel while effective solutions may already exist at other institutions.

Make no mistake, countless administrators and faculty members at Georgia Tech care about students. The problem is that Georgia Tech does not know how best to care. Over the past year, I organized the Intercollegiate Mental Health Conference to create a database of program and solutions under way at other campuses. With support from administration and the Counseling Center, we will bring 11 colleges from across the United States here in February to share and discuss best practices. This is a significant step forward to engage Georgia Tech with external collaborators.

A concerted movement to improve mental health has been ongoing since at least the 2013 Mental Health Task Force. More public events, conversations, and use of additional information networks are needed. Failure in this area simplifies a complex issue to merely “Georgia Tech needs more counselors.”

The crisis requires an unprecedented level of research and engagement between students, faculty, administration, parents, and legislators. We are tasked with the challenge of augmenting current mental health resources to meet the demand of today while implementing policies that will reduce the demand of tomorrow.

Common mental illness is a normal biological response to an abnormal pathological environment. Georgia Tech, much like an individual with depression, needs connection now more than ever.

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