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The Dartmouth
February 26, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Roodnitsky: Mental Health is an Epidemic, and Dartmouth Needs to Act

With so many students facing mental health conditions, Dartmouth has a responsibility to implement meaningful initiatives.

At Dartmouth and beyond, there have been significant improvements in normalizing the discussion of mental health conditions in the past decade. However, there are still huge strides to be made in reducing the stigma around mental illnesses, especially those categorized as severe mental illnesses. Any mental illness refers to any emotional, behavioral or mental disorder. To be categorized as an SMI, the disorder must also substantially interfere with or limit one or more major life activities.

Prevalence among individuals with AMI or SMI is highest amongst those between the ages of 18 and 25. In 2021, 45.8% of young adults had an AMI, and 11.4% had an SMI. Initiatives to support mental health are thus especially important on college campuses. In order to continue diminishing stigma and improve the overall wellbeing of Dartmouth’s student body, we should require routine mental health screenings, create a mandatory student curriculum on mental health and establish support groups for specific conditions.

Mental health awareness is still swept under the rug at colleges across the country, and Dartmouth is no different. A number of factors exacerbate the prevalence of mental disorders on campuses, including sleep deprivation, excessive drinking, academic stress and financial concerns. Since 2020, four Dartmouth students have died by suicide. Mental health needs to be a clear priority on campus, and students should be unquestionably supported in having their needs met. 

Too often, it gets to the point where a student is in extreme distress before they get the help they are seeking. In reality, we can prevent these major life disruptions with early intervention. If identified in their initial stages, subclinical mental disorders can still effectively respond to treatment plans. Not only is this cost effective, but a chronic health problem and a serious dip in quality of life can be avoided. Everyone is familiar with the routine physical exam: our vitals are checked, lungs and heart are listened to and the doctor evaluates any signs for potential illnesses. We also go see our dentist twice a year to assess our teeth — there is no reason why we shouldn’t also get regular check-ups for our mental health. Lacking a similar system for mental health conditions only stigmatizes these conditions. At colleges, regular, mandatory screenings would help flag students at risk and provide them with resources that could prevent them from having a serious episode. 

At Dartmouth, if you go for an appointment at Dick’s House, there is a program in place where upon check-in, students are screened for alcohol misuse, depression and disordered sleep. However, this survey is not comprehensive, and it is also not tailored for assessing the wide range of mental health conditions that exist. Another issue is that not all students go in for an appointment every quarter. Dartmouth must go further by screening all students to ensure that nobody is left behind. This could be done once a year; for example, at the start of fall term.

It is imperative that such screenings are conducted, as many students may not consider what they are experiencing to be a result of a mental health condition. Awareness is key — it is crucial that somebody knows if they have a mental illness, just like it’s important to know if someone has diabetes, a bone fracture or a heart condition. Moreover, learning that certain symptoms, feelings and experiences are actually due to a mental health condition can bring a person major relief. After all, many of these illnesses are treatable; our students deserve to get the help they need. 

Moreover, mental health needs to become a subject the entire student body is educated on. The College currently requires students to complete a training on alcohol safety prior to arrival at Dartmouth through AlcoholEdu. We also have a four-year Sexual Violence Prevention Project course, with the aim of reducing sexual assault on campus. Dartmouth should implement a similar program that shows its commitment towards robust mental health education and awareness. Students would be able to engage in curricula that aims to reduce mental health stigma, inform students on how to recognize mental illnesses and advertises the resources that campus offers. Not only would students be able to recognize the signs of a mental health condition in themselves, but they would be able to help fellow peers, friends and roommates who may be experiencing symptoms as well. Such a program would also foster a higher degree of sympathy for those living with mental illnesses, helping them feel more accepted, heard and supported on campus.  

With such a high number of students affected by mental illness, there is an urgent need for accessible support groups that can alleviate isolating feelings. Right now, we have a peer support program through our Student Mental Health Union that provides private one-on-one chats with student volunteers, who have received over 50 hours of formal training. 

The College should also introduce various support groups  for people with respective mental illnesses to come together and share experiences and stories. It is easy to feel isolated on campus, so making these connections is uplifting. Many of my own friends have expressed a desire for support groups for depression, Bipolar I and II, PTSD, eating disorders, OCD, anxiety, ADHD and more. It is the responsibility of the College to help provide nonjudgmental spaces where productive dialogue and healing can occur. 

President Sian Beilock’s “Commitment to Care,” a 55-page plan that details action-items and goals regarding student’s mental health, shows that we are headed in the right direction. However, we must hold the College accountable in taking real, meaningful action. The administration should continue to create timelines  to communicate with students as to when we can expect certain actions to come to fruition. Impactful solutions do exist, and Dartmouth can and should implement them to showcase that student wellbeing is a top priority. 

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.