Community Engagement Essential for Mentally Healthy Campuses

Oct 29, 2015

Early in high school, Katie Kovacovich struggled with anxiety, depression, and self-harm. By her senior year, she had gone to counseling, talked with her parents, and felt prepared for the next step. She said the transition to campus for her first year at Luther College was relatively painless.

"To speak to the Luther community, they do a fabulous job of integrating students in their first year and pushing community and pushing involvement. I found that transition to be smoother than I expected. I also was blessed to have a wonderful floor that year; my floormates and my roommate were all wonderful people and it built a wonderful community around me."

Robert Reason, professor in the school of education at Iowa State University, says research backs up Kovacovich's experience. He's studied nationwide survey data and found students' emotional, psychological, and social well-being is strongly connected to community engagement.

"If we go back to Katie's story, she talked about the isolation that can accompany mental health concerns, alleviating the isolation, finding places to connect. She talked about her residence hall floor, which is one of the places we talk about students able to find connections on a college campus. She talked about engagement with students and student groups. Those provide meaning in life," he says. 

At a time when 25% of college students are living with a diagnosable mental illness, but 40% of them aren't seeking help from their institutions, mental health on campus has never been a more pressing issue.

Barry Schreier, director of the University Counseling Services at the University of Iowa, says the first part of the equation has come a long way--more students are seeking help than ever before. But there's still work to be done on the second half of the equation--meeting their needs once they do.

"Then we have to take a look at the resource we have present to meet that need. The less there is resource to meet a need like that, the more of a gap we have. 'Waitlist' is a word that comes out of that gap. At the University of Iowa, we're the least staffed counseling center in the Big 10. So of all the Big 10 university counseling centers, we have the least number of staff at our center."

Kovacovich is on one of those waitlists at Luther College. She says the other mental health resource in town, Winneshiek Mental Health and Disabilities Services, also has a waitlist.

Schreier says solving mental health issues isn't about just one building on campus; it's about creating a mentally healthy community at every level. He cites the example of a recent death on UI's campus. He says in the aftermath of that sort of loss, sending grieving students right to the counseling center shouldn't be the first option offered.

"By the time somebody comes to our center, something's wrong and they need help. And people grieving in the aftermath of something difficult like that are having a very normal reaction. They may just need to talk to that staff or faculty member who they know. We're often wanting also to get out the message, especially for this generation, of 'Many of your feelings are normal and many of your feelings are very appropriate, and when something bad happens, it's appropriate to feel badly about it.'"

In this hour of River to River, host Ben Kieffer talks with Kovacovich, Reason, and Schreier about creating campuses that promote mental health.