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My view: Addressing the issue of mental health on college campuses

Mental health is becoming one of the biggest challenges on Utah's college campuses today.
Andy Dean via Adobe Stock photo

My two granddaughters, ages 7 and 4, had a sleepover with me last weekend. While fixing breakfast the next morning, I relayed a story that I had hoped would land an important message to my little ones. It went like this: One day I was sitting in my ninth-grade mixed chorus class between Judy, a loner girl with few friends who held a plump, shiny apple tightly in her hands waiting for the lunch bell to ring. On the other side of me sat one of the most popular girls in the school, a vivacious cheerleader who possessed all the qualities to which I aspired. Suddenly, the cheerleader leaned across my lap and snatched the apple from Judy’s grip, took a huge bite out of it, then laughed out loud. The tormented look on Judy’s face remains with me to this day. If only life would allow re-dos. As I told my young granddaughters the story, I replayed the scene, this time including what I should have done — chastise the cheerleader, put my arm around Judy and walk with her to the lunchroom to eat lunch together.

The urge to tell Judy’s story was precipitated by my attendance at an independent film screening the night before. The title of the film, Audrie and Daisy, is a riveting and somber documentary about sexual assault and ensuing cyber-bullying particularly targeted at young women. The film screening was hosted by a group of impressive Park City High School students, members of their high school’s Teen Council. It was poignant that several teen boys were present and were obvious advocates and allies of their female classmates. I sat immediately behind the boys during the film, the silhouettes of their heads recoiling as they watched vivid portrayals of outcomes of horrific choices.

The documentary highlights the tragic and far-reaching effects of bullying, causing damage that can affect victims for a lifetime and contributing to mental health issues. I felt an urgent need to teach age-appropriate strategies to my granddaughters, ideas that would help them set boundaries and what they can do when those boundaries are breached.

Authors Insel & Fenton describe mental illnesses as “the chronic diseases of the young.” In fact, mental health is becoming one of the biggest challenges on Utah’s college campuses today. Signs of mental illness don’t necessarily begin when students enter college, but they bloom in that environment. Astounding statistics about what Utah’s colleges are facing were presented at a recent meeting at the Utah Board of Regents. Among the most serious findings reported to the board that governs Utah’s colleges and universities:

  • Utah’s college students fall above the national average on depression, thoughts of suicide and serious mental illness.
  • During the past academic year, approximately 45 percent of college students felt “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”
  • Over the past 15 years, the national suicide rate has increased 24 percent (CDC). Utah’s child suicide rate is more than double the national rate and climbing. Suicide is the leading cause of death among 10-17 year olds in Utah.
  • On average, a college student in Utah has to wait four to eight weeks to get an appointment at a counseling center. At some schools, the wait time is as long as 11 weeks.
  • On any given Utah campus, typically about 5 percent of students served by counseling centers are homicidal and experience thoughts of harming others. That means, for example, that on any given day, 45 students at the University of Utah and 34 Southern Utah University students experience homicidal thoughts.
  • On any given campus, typically about 25-30 percent of students served by counseling centers are suicidal.
  • Like most other Western and rural states, Utah lacks sufficient numbers of trained psychologists and psychiatrists to meet the most severe needs. There are no practicing psychiatrists between Utah County and St. George.
  • Student safety nets have gaping holes, from the earliest years on up. Utah ranks 50th of the states in K-12 student-to-school counselor ratio (726 students per counselor). The recommended ratio is 250:1.

The Utah Board of Regents is now adding its voice and is taking measures to address the issue of mental health on college campuses. This is the season of Thanksgiving and the time to feel the spirit of the holidays. It’s also the time of year when mental health crises spike upward, often spawned by some type of bullying. Let’s be acutely aware of the needs of people around us and stand up to bullying at any age and in any form. Bullies are made, not born. Patricia W. Jones is CEO of the Women's Leadership Institute, a 501(c)3 based at the Salt Lake Chamber. She was a co-founder and former president of Dan Jones & Associates. She served in both the Utah House and Senate for a total of 14 years, holding leadership positions 12 of those 14 years. She was elected minority leader of the Senate in 2008, the first woman of either party elected to lead a caucus in the Utah Legislature.