More high school graduates than ever before are choosing to attend college. The college student body is now more representative of the overall population, including its array of psychological symptoms and disorders, said Dale Hicks, associate director for the Counseling Center for Human Development at USF.
This increase in students with mental illness is forcing the faculty and the student body to examine what they know about mental illness and how they respond to people with disorders, Hicks said.
Students with mental illnesses need the support of their peers to be able to succeed in school and daily life.
“There is a great deal of cross-validated research that establishes the importance of emotional factors in learning and job success,” Hicks said. “Faculty and administrators are beginning to recognize the critical link between psychological health and academic success and retention — they are referring more students to the Counseling Center when they become aware that a student is experiencing difficulties.”
A variety of mental illnesses express themselves in young adulthood, such as depression and stress. College can be a stressful time for students, and not every student reacts equally to the changes in his or her life.
“Many students are advised to drop out of school, reduce stress and step away from major-life goals,” said David Shern, dean for the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at USF.
Shern’s department is developing testing strategies to help people experiencing mental illness, without giving up their regular activities. The idea is to intervene in the beginning, before severe disability.
This early intervention program would help to identify people, reach out to them, diagnose the illness and try to help people live their daily lives, Shern said.
“We hope to get this program going. Not only will we work with people just starting to experience symptoms of mental illness, but we will also work with people that have severe disabilities to get them back in their lives,” Shern said.
Supportive interventions take more than mental health professionals and university faculty to succeed. Peers support is also important to students with mental health issues. The way that students and faculty perceive mentally ill students has an impact on how they are treated, Shern added.
Students with these illnesses can be progressively isolated. Therefore, students need to encourage wellness by giving support to people in their chosen environment. Students need to keep being educated about people with mental health issues rather than stigmatize their peers, Shern said.
In order to better understand how faculty and students perceive students with mental illness, faculty members from the FMHI and the Office of Institutional Research and Planning conducted a study entitled “Students with Mental Illness in a University Setting: Faculty and Students’ Attitudes, Beliefs, Knowledge and Experiences.”
This study, published in the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal in 2002, included the responses of the 315 faculty members and 1,901 students at USF who chose to participate in the study anonymously.
The purpose of the study was to examine the issue of students with mental illness and describe USF’s strategies for improving the environment in which students with mental illnesses learn, Shern said.
Questions ranged from familiarity with various mental illnesses to willingness to refer a student believed to have mental illness to mental health services.
“We were pleasantly surprised with the results of the survey –it’s remarkable that students would try to convince students with mental health illnesses to seek help,” Shern said.
The survey shows that both students (85.6 percent) and faculty (80.9 percent) believe that students with mental illness can succeed in college. However, 54.7 percent of students and 3.3 percent of faculty responded that they would not feel safe in the classroom with a mentally ill student present.
More than half of the students surveyed, 58.6 percent, and 2.7 percent of the faculty members surveyed answered that students with mental illness are dangerous to have in a classroom.
The research concluded that there is a need for students and faculty to change their attitudes towards students with mental illness.
“We as a university should strive to understand people with mental illness and support them in their decision for a higher education,” Shern said. “Peer support is very important and, in conjunction with professional support, can be very helpful for people with mental illness.”
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