Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
When I stepped into higher education a decade ago, I figured the same way I’d been trained to engage with patients in my therapy room would apply. Be the polished professional. Show students empathy — but limit any personal disclosures to a few vague hypothetical anecdotes. DO. NOT. Reveal your own humanity.
But after two decades as a therapist and educator from as young as Pre-K to doctoral level, I’ve seen too much carnage to keep my poker face on. I realized what used to seem like a boundary breach has become a moral responsibility. That I could no longer hide under the auspices that I was an expert in mental health solely because of my clinical license and accolades.
I realized what I’d advocated for my entire career — no stigma, open dialogue, and applying brain science to understand mental health weren’t just lessons reserved for my students. That I had to practice what I preach. As a white, privileged, educated, upper class woman, keeping quiet makes me a bystander and hypocrite.
I was still nervous. Thoughts like, “What will they think?” and, “Could I lose my job?” flooded my mind. But I knew better. I rub elbows with the brain science every day. We now know that “mental health conditions” don’t just “plague” the few, as once thought. There are complex biopsychosocial factors and neurological mechanisms involved. It is now understood that we vacillate in and out of various depressive and anxious episodes across our lifespan.
Mental health needs to be talked about on a college campus. 73 percent of students are likely to experience at least one mental health crisis during their studies. Educators are under fire. Burnout is the number one occupational risk. We need honest conversation.
When I finally came out with my own mental health story on campus, it was in front of a large group of students and colleagues. It was a classic ball of nerves moment that any kind of public presentation tends to breed. Full house. People had their coffee in them. All eyes fixed on me. I started with a polished academic definition of impostor syndrome and rattled off statistics about anxiety from my latest research.
They needed more. I abandoned my scripted PowerPoint. I admitted that at times I was my own burnout case study. That my “expertise” also came from my own lived experience with anxiety and depression. That even with my clinical credentials and upbeat demeanor, my overthinking brain gets the best of me. That my life depends on going to therapy, deliberate self-care, and a very precise lifestyle medicine routine (sleep, exercise, nutrition, meditation, connection).
I walked back to my office thinking I’d committed professional suicide. Was my boss going to start watching me closely? Would my students think I’m weird? Why did I over-share in front of that many people? OMG — what have I done?
Instead, I got:
Necessary conversations are often awkward, delicate, and anxiety provoking. But they help us move towards authentic, healing and protective dialogue — not just for our own sake, but for collective well-being.
Since my first coming out, the awkwardness of disclosure has tapered. I’ve told my story many times since, even acting out a scene from my own therapy appointment in a TED talk that was widely broadcast.
This shift from mental health condition to human condition brought on an incredible outpouring. From students suffering in silence, afraid of being stigmatized, marginalized, and penalized starting to reach for help. With educators trying to ward off burnout, feeling pressure to perform without flinching, all while losing hair and sleep.
I get stopped on the elevator. People hug me after talks. They write things like YESSSS! on my social media feeds with little fist bumps and heart emojis. Yet, there’s so much more to be done.
From the point of first disclosure to now, I’ve learned a lot. Here’s my cliff notes on how to protect mental health on our campuses:
1. Notice and refer.
You do not have to be a psychologist to see red flags. Ask if you are worried. Show you care. Point to the resources. This can save a life.
2. Emphasize “human condition,” not “mental health condition.”
Consider the worldwide data in this “Age of Anxiety.” One in five report clinical symptoms. Depression is dubbed the “modern global health crisis.” Normalize the need for help. Assume everyone can benefit from resources and treatment at every stage of life. Help them protect mental health in a context that works against it. Our brains are vulnerable within this complex landscape. This is our human condition.
3. Keep overachievers on your radar.
Appearances tell us very little. Stereotypes about what mental illness “looks like” can cause us to miss the ones that aren’t “obvious” at first glance. Use universal precautions. Especially for your students or colleagues who’ve mastered “the art of fine”. The straight A superstars need watching. Overachievers with big smiles, carefully curated answers and impressive resumes are often the ones who fall into danger.
4. Deconstruct impostor syndrome.
Rethink “impostor syndrome” — an intellectual form of self-doubt that one is going to be “found out” or aren’t “good enough”. Create conditions in your classrooms and institutions where everyone knows their value and resists the urge to engage in self-sabotage and social comparison. Provide opportunities for those in marginalized groups (i.e. first-generation, LGBTQIA, students/educators of color) who disproportionately wrestle with impostor syndrome to be met with conscious policies, practices, resources and safe community to help eradicate its toxic effects.
5. Embed well-being concepts throughout teaching and programming.
Psychoeducation isn’t enough. Research shows that “supervised skill practice” — providing oversight on resilience bolstering skills is critical. Start class with mindful meditation. Assign self-care as homework. Showcase well-being in student orientations. Provide consistent reinforcement for the entire continuum of your learning community to prioritize and protect mental health. Emphasize success isn’t worth it when we’re too stressed or sick to enjoy it.
Ask your administration for more training and resources to foster a culture of well-being. If they won’t listen, remind them it’s not just a moral obligation, but good for the bottom line. Mental health issues are the number one reason students drop out. Educator burnout leads to turnover, lost productivity and poor outcomes. Remind them to couple messages of rigor and excellence with those of pacing and sustainability. Look at how your institution prioritizes (or doesn’t) mental health. Good intentions go awry without the right policies and resource allocation.
7. See your role as sacred.
Educators are Angels on Earth. When you’re on the front line, students might find you more approachable than mental health clinicians, parents or peers. Students look up to us. Small things make a big difference. Showing them your humanity might be the greatest lesson you can teach.
Let’s change the way we talk about mental health on our campuses and across all social institutions. Our longstanding tides of stigma, marginalization and discrimination need to be replaced with honest and safe dialogue. We need to reframe mental health conditions and find opportunities to elevate and protect our shared human condition.
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