I was (Carolina) blue. Unlike my beloved Tar Heel hoops squad, my unstoppable opponent was bludgeoning me into submission. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety nearly toppled me during my college years. The issue is bigger than my beloved alma mater: On university campuses, mental health issues affect 25 percent of the student body.
I bleed Tar Heel blue. I founded a student organization on campus, graduated with a shiny GPA, and studied abroad in Australia. I rejoiced on Franklin Street when the Heels upended Duke. From riveting seminars to proud traditions, Chapel Hill provided the quintessential university experience.
My mental health struggles, though, were scarier than Halloween on Franklin Street. Outwardly effervescent, I was crumbling inside. OCD’s intrusive, repetitive thoughts battered me. The accompanying anxiety and depression plunged me into a dark hole.
Halfway through the first semester, I staggered to the university health center. Gaunt and disheveled, I couldn’t reconcile the unwanted thoughts and feelings. My mind, once a trusted ally, now deceived me. In the antiseptic health center, I was officially diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
An 18-year-old kid, I struggled with my newfound identity. There was an element of relief but shame and, even deeper, self-loathing. “What do these horrible thoughts say about me? Maybe I want to commit these horrific acts,” my mind thundered. It took over two years to disclose my mental health travails to my parents. Fumbling over the words, I stumbled through a tortured explanation to them.
Soon thereafter, I would meet each week with a graduate student After years of silent suffering, I could finally discuss my mental anguish with a trusted professional. He demystified OCD — reassuring me that these false messages were mindless blather.
I was fortunate. Forty percent of university students do not seek help for mental health. There is a sad irony in this statistic. At prestigious universities, we sharpen our analytical minds to tackle society’s most pressing issues. But as we refine our analytical and writing skills, we ignore — or dismiss — our most pressing issue: mental health.
Here are pragmatic steps to address mental health frailties on campus:
- Discuss mental health resources during orientation.
My parents and I endured a two-and-a-half day deluge of course materials, campus happenings, and miscellany. By day two, my mother and I were stifling yawns.
Mental health would have grabbed our attention. With the spate of high-profile campus suicides, there is a glaring need for openness about mental health. A trained mental health expert could have outlined worrisome signs — withdrawal, indifference, erratic behavior — for concerned parents.
For incoming students, an upperclassman could have discussed campus resources — a mentoring program, a confidential help line, unlimited counseling sessions at student health — in a question and answer session. Likewise, a seasoned administrator or mental health ombudsman could have detailed university resources, ranging from testing accommodations to independent courses. Universities aspire to a diverse student body; don’t resilient students surmounting mental health challenges qualify?
- Introduce a mandatory coping skills course.
At UNC and top-tier institutions, the incoming class brims with talented students. Enrolled in a selective university, you may struggle in a class or perform poorly on an exam. The courses are rigorous for a reason.
Healthy coping skills are critical to moving past these academic setbacks. For anxiety-prone overachievers, a skills course on test anxiety, self-esteem, and emotional management would smooth the inevitable adjustment to a demanding four-year institution. A recommendation: design the skills course using a peer-to-peer model. We want to empower all consumers; mentoring is a significant component for long-term recovery.
We romanticize the university lifestyle — 11:00 AM classes, weekend roadtrips, and tree-lined quadrangles. Underneath the veneer, university students face emotional challenges, employment uncertainties, and taxing schedules. As more mentally ill students descend on ol’ State U, universities must redefine mental health services. Let’s preserve Carolina blue as the defining color for America’s oldest public university, not the defining mood for overwhelmed university students.