Mental Health on College Campuses By: Carolyn Ciolfi

Blaming someone for having a mental illness is similar to blaming someone for having cancer.

Mental Illnesses Versus Physical Illnesses

What is the difference between a physical and mental illness? Consider if someone was hospitalized for an illness like cancer versus a mental illness such as bipolar disorder. Typically, the person with cancer would be brought flowers, cookies and visited by family members. Is that usually the case for mental illnesses? An illness is defined by Miriam-Webster as a sickness of the body or mind. If both mental and physically illnesses are outlined in the same definition as a sickness, why are they not accepted by society the same way? People do not view them as two similar entities since mental illnesses are not technically visible or clearly testable.

Mental health on college campuses has become an increasing issue during the past few years. This topic is of the utmost importance because mental illnesses are increasing, there a lack of resources to obtain help on college campuses, and a stigma that stops a conversation about it. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, anxiety, depression, and relationship problems are the top 3 mental health issues among college students (APA). Also, 24.5% of college students are taking psychotropic medications, according to the survey. Both the lack of resources and a stigma against mental illnesses contribute to the increasing mental illnesses and decrease in use of resources.

Background of Mental Heath in the United States

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, one in five Americans have experienced issues with mental health. Also, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US. The discussion of mental health today is much more open than it was in the past. However, the conversation must continue to move in that direction. There is a connection between overall well-being, physical well-being and mental well-being according to CNN. However, this was not always accepted and treating mental illnesses in the past was a very different process. Past practices in the mid 1900s included isolation and asylums, insulin coma therapy, metrazol therapy or induced seizures, and lobotomies. These practices today are considered dangerous. Even though progress with treatments and the discussion of mental health still needs to be made, progress in the right direction has occurred.

Anxiety and Depression Association of America Infographic

The Stigma

Stigma is when someone views you in a negative way because you have a distinguishing characteristic personal trait that's thought to be, or actually is a disadvantage according to the Mayo Clinic. There is an existing stigma against mental illnesses. This stigma can derive from within someone with a mental illness and change how they view themselves, or it can be socially induced from how others treat and view someone with a mental illness. No matter the source, the stigma effects the probability of resource use and overall attitudes towards mental illnesses. According to the Attitudes Towards Mental Illness report by the CDC, the stigma can result in a negative perception of resources. This creates a cycle of increasing mental illnesses, but decreasing use of resources due to the internal and external stigma around mental illnesses.

So, the next thing to consider is how can the stigma be broken? It depends on how mental health is discussed and thought about in your community. Possible steps to breaking the stigma include: creating more awareness about the commonality of it, creating more opportunities for education on the topic, encouraging equality between physical and mental illness, being honest about receiving treatment, and normalizing the discussion of mental health. Each person, with an mental illness or without, can make an impact by changing their thoughts, words and actions to create a more accepting community around mental health and illness.


There is a existing debate over the correct terminology to use when discussing mental health. Carefully selecting the words to describe mental illnesses can aid in reducing the stigma. A person is not defined by their condition, which is key to remember during word choice. For example, one could say "she is bipolar" makes it seem like a defining characteristic. Replacing that with "she is a person with bipolar disorder" makes a major difference. Also, defining someone as suffering, along with other derogatory terms, should be avoided. Someone has a mental illness and say what specific illness, rather than saying they are suffering with a mental illness. Just because someone has a mental illness, does not mean they are generally 'crazy', 'psycho', or mentally ill in general. Even though these are some general rules to follow when discussing mental health, each person has their own preferences of how to be spoken about.

General Education About Mental Health

Being aware of the warning signs within yourself, friends, and people around you as signs of mental illnesses is key. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, typical warning signs in adults can include: problems concentrating, extreme mood changes, avoiding friends and social settings, changes in eating habits, and excessive worry, fear, or sadness (NAMI). These warning signs are some of the things you should attempt to notice about yourself, a friend, or even a stranger. However, speaking about the topic can be hard for you, or someone you know. Being the change to start a conversation yourself about your mental health or inviting someone to discuss their experiences can make a huge difference or even save a life. See the video below for more warning signs of mental health conditions in teens and young adults, which is around the age of college students.

Types of Mental Illnesses

The most common mental illnesses are depression, anxiety, bipolar affective disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, addiction, phobias, borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder. Of these, anxiety is the most common which effects about 20% of the United States population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Resources at Indiana University

The main resource that Indiana University offers to students with mental illnesses is the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) department of the health center on campus. The first two visits to this department are free for any student at Indiana University. Also, they have an emergency phone number that operates 24/7. The phone number is 812-855-5711 to speak with a crisis counselor, according to the CAPS website (Indiana University Health Center). The CAPS department offers services for academic concerns, relationship concerns, stress management, time management, sleeping issues, adjusting to college life, anxiety, depression, substance use, body image and eating concerns, and sexual assault or abuse.

Even though Indiana University has resources available to students, there are still limitations of who can utilize them more. As mentioned, every student at IU has two free visits, but after that the cost can range based on the type and length of visit. This inhibits lower income students from visiting the CAPS office more than two times. Also, there are about fifty-thousand students at IU and twenty-seven therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors who work for the office. This uneven ratio causes over-booking of the office at certain times and the delay of help through an in-person appointment.

The Indiana University Heath Center Mission

National Resources

As a nation with one of the highest rates of mental illnesses, the US has many resources to help. There are 24/7 HelpLine phone numbers for almost every disorder that you can call. The most important of these HelpLines is the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. The number is 1-800-273-8255. Knowing this number can save your life or the lives of others. Besides the HelpLines, the resources available include treatment information, financial assistance, crisis management information, legal information, and community support services. For more information, follow this link: https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/NAMI-HelpLine/Top-HelpLine-Resources

Infographic from the National Council for Behavioral Health

Students Perspectives

"When I was first diagnosed with a mental illness, I was afraid to tell people because I thought it would make them think of me differently," Noa said, who is an IU student with anxiety. "It took me a lot of time to accept it and I still only really tell my friends about it"

"In my experience, it is hard for people without mental illnesses to understand what it is like," Avneet said, who is an IU student with depression. "The people who care about me really do make an effort to understand but sometimes I wish the general public would be more understanding and accepting."

Common words associated with mental health by Vator News

My Perspective

As a person living with a generalized anxiety disorder on a college campus, I am no stranger to the situation of the stigma campus surrounding mental illnesses. It is hard for people who do not have mental illnesses to understand what is like to have one without an open discussion. The existing stigma is what prevents the thoughts and discussion of mental illnesses without shame. I sometimes am ashamed to discuss my mental illness because of how people would perceive me after they knew.

College is a major transitional period for young adults living away from home for the first time. There are so many external stressors to be concerned with including school work, social life, sleep, jobs/internships, family, and significant others. Trying to balance this at times can feel overwhelming, and that is exactly how I felt. It is okay to feel stressed and overwhelmed in college. I had to learn that I was not alone feeling this way, everyone has so much on their plate at all times. I also had to learn that it is not embarrassing to seek help and treatment. If anything, it helped me so much after I did.

Infographic about the symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder created by VeryWell

Treatment Options

Both physical and mental illnesses require treatment or else they will worsen. It is crucial to seek treatment for a mental illness in order for it to improve. Typically, treatments for mental illnesses are a personalized mix of multiple options. The first option is psychotherapy which entails speaking to a trained professional in a private environment to understand feelings and obtain coping skills. The trained professional is typically a psychologist, who can no prescribe medications. The second option is medications, which requires a diagnosis and prescription from a psychiatrist. These medication options vary based on the illness. The third option is psychosocial treatments which can include education, support groups, self-help, and more. The fourth option is brain stimulation therapies. This is typically the last option if the others are not helping the symptoms. One or a combination of these treatments can make someone living with a mental illness feel better, but the treatment plan for each person and illness is different.

What can you do?

The four main things anyone can do to improve overall mental heath on college campuses is educating yourself on the topic, being aware of wording used and resources, check up on your friends, and start or continue the discussion of the topic. Education about the topic is the first key step in changing a long-term stigma surrounding mental illnesses. First, it is crucial to educate yourself in preparation for a crisis and to have an open discussion about the topic. Second, being aware of your word choice when discussing mental health may seem like a small difference, but it will spark a larger change. Third, checking up on your friends to ensure they are doing alright can prevent a future crisis. No matter how well you know someone and the typical warning signs, you may not see an upcoming crisis. Lastly, starting or continuing the discussion about mental health will normalize the topic. Having a more open discussion about mental illness is key to breaking the stigma.

Infographic from BelievePerform

Moving Forward...

You never know what someone else is going through unless you ask and try to understand their perspective. The most everyone can do is exercise empathy and educate yourself to break the existing stigma. It is crucial for institutions to emphasize education on the topic to create a more accepting culture. Also, training to handle such emergencies is key to saving lives along with availability and quality of resources. Mental illnesses should not be considered to be different from physical illnesses, and I hope the world will reach that equality one day in order to save many lives.


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Created By
Carolyn Ciolfi