Students Need Services, Not Censure

Sunday, March 19, 2006

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 1,100 suicides occur on college campuses each year. This devastating statistic shows the need for colleges to change their institutional approach to issues of depression and suicide.

I am a freshman at George Washington University, which has been in the news lately for having asked a depressed student to leave ["GWU Suit Prompts Questions of Liability; School Barred Depressed Student," front page, March 10].

Since I came to GWU from Minnesota, I expected to feel displaced, but I quickly realized that almost all freshmen are foreigners in the world of college. Adjusting to college has been overwhelming at times -- the stress of exams, money issues, club meetings, work, making new friends, keeping in touch with family. So I was stunned to hear that if I had chosen to check myself into the hospital, I could have compromised my enrollment in the university and been barred from campus.

I certainly understand the university's concern, but the message such policies send to students is that depression is not okay and that students who tell a counselor that they are having suicidal thoughts may find themselves kicked out of school. Such a message hardly encourages depressed or troubled students to seek help and only isolates them further.

During the midterm exam period, I heard more than a few students say that they wanted to die. The casual mention of such dark thoughts shows how common depression is among college students. To my knowledge, none of these students attempted suicide, but the stress -- and the distress -- was real.

Suicides in past years have led GWU to offer mental health services, such as the University Counseling Center, where students can talk to counselors about any problem or join a support group. The counseling center also has a Web site with extensive information about depression and suicide. The Student Health Service is another great resource for students. It held a health week and a screening for depression in October.

But these efforts fall short. The counseling center allows students only a limited number of sessions with one counselor before they must reapply. This policy makes some students feel that they are lost in an impersonal shuffle. And while screening students for depression may be an excellent idea, the timing is wrong. In October freshmen have just arrived on campus and don't know what is in store for them.

Mental health cannot be a taboo issue on college campuses. Many students need assistance at some point during their college careers. If universities made it known to entering freshmen that help would be available, students would feel less alone if and when such feelings emerge. College is often the first time many young people have lived away from their parents, but if colleges would take a guiding role, the transition to independence would be easier.

I love GWU because its staff truly cares about each student. But instead of punishing troubled students for seeking help, the university should offer enough mental health services to support its students in their time of need.

-- Meredith Raimondi

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