The Course of Reason

Skeptics and Mental Illness on Campus

May 2, 2013

Hugs for catsCollege campuses are stress-laden places. We go through periods of intense work and many deadlines, followed by calm. We're expected to keep up our grades, hold down jobs, volunteer, engage in extracurriculars, and make the best friends of our lives (don't worry if you haven't gotten this one covered, there's still hope). You have a bunch of young adults on their own, responsible for their own lives for the first time, navigating without their traditional support system, still without fully developed frontal lobes and still with raging hormones.

College campuses are a hotbed for mental illness. Unfortunately, a great deal of the situational depression that almost everyone experiences in college goes untreated. Eating disorders are rampant on college campuses right now. And with the rash of sexual abuse happening, there's likely some untreated PTSD hanging around as well. As with any population of individuals, there are also likely to be some personality disorders, anxiety, substance-related disorders (likely exacerbated by college drinking culture), and even dissociative disorders or more serious problems. College campuses do self-select to some extent in that those with severe mental illness may have a hard time with academics. You're unlikely to see someone at the far end of the autism spectrum for example. However mental illness exists on college campuses, and in general the atmosphere of college is not conducive to taking care of one's mental health.

While most colleges do have counseling services available on campus, I have yet to see a college campus invest a large amount of resources in their counseling services, or see those services taken advantage of at the rate that they likely should be. I have personally taken advantage of the services of one college, and they did not have the specialization that I required, and in the long run were unhelpful. My friends at a large university who took advantage of their services were immediately scheduled for a meds consultation even before their problems were heard, and felt more like a number than a human being. This is a problem. When colleges expect their students to perform to the best of their abilities, the school needs to provide all the necessary resources, and that includes mental health services that are actually helpful.

As skeptic groups on campus, we are in a unique position to advocate for mental health services. There is a great deal of woo surrounding mental illness and mental health in general, however the research suggests that all sorts of people could benefit from cognitive behavior therapy, mindfulness practice, or simple skills-based therapy. We also exist to provide support and community to our members, many of whom have probably dealt with being ostracized or bullied for their beliefs in the past. Because of this unique intersection of science advocacy and community building, skeptic groups on campus are in a perfect position to do advocacy work for improved mental health services on campus, raised awareness of mental health problems on campus, and decreasing stigma against mental health. We already have experience with trying to decrease stigma against atheists: it would be just as easy to organize a "Hug someone with depression" day, to illustrate just how pervasive depression is and just how normal those individuals with depression are. While the main focus of many campus groups is likely science education or atheist issues, it could be extremely beneficial to branch out into community service oriented actions that have a strong grounding in science.


About the Author: Olivia James

Olivia James's photo

Olivia James is a recent graduate from St. Olaf College who is now navigating the post-college pre-grad school waters. She was a philosophy and religion major and was a member of St. Olaf's SSA. She is also an avid swing dancer, voracious reader, and all around nutjob. 




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