Kaplan: Coping With Students' Mental Illnesses

Let's not mince words: college can be tough. According to a 2007 study by the American College Health Association, 43 percent of students reported having felt "so depressed it was difficult to function" at least once in the prior year. Other studies, based on student surveys, suggest that one in five undergraduates reported having an eating disorder, one in six had deliberately cut or burned himself and one in 10 had considered suicide.

Given those numbers, it's deeply troubling that in 2007 just 8.5 percent of students used their college's counseling services. In other words, students were more likely to consider killing themselves than to seek help. "After Virginia Tech, students feel more afraid to discuss mental-health problems," says Alison Malmon, the founder of Active Minds, a national group that promotes mental-health awareness on campus. "They think they'll be labeled as the crazy kid who'll shoot up the school."

Counselors say that while they do keep an eye out for students who might pose a risk to others, the overwhelming majority of their patients are no threat to anyone but themselves. "The things that make it into the media aren't people's everyday struggles," says Gregory Eells, head of Cornell's counseling service and president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. "We need to let students know that seeking treatment is a strong, smart thing."

Counseling services must look for new ways to reach out to troubled students. NYU freshmen are treated annually to a "reality show," in which NYU student actors perform skits on topics from depression to drug abuse. At Harvard, students can win iPods for attending mental-health screening sessions and are invited to "pajama party" panels, where flannel-clad counselors dispense milk and cookies along with advice about the importance of sleep. "There's still a high level of stigma," says Richard Kadison, head of Harvard's mental-health services. "We're trying to find creative ways of getting the message out."

Many campuses also offer online services allowing students to complete informal diagnostic quizzes away from the prying eyes of their peers. "You take it in the privacy of your own dorm room—not at some event where a bunch of other students might be watching you," says Katherine Cruise, a director of Screening for Mental Health, a nonprofit that serves about 500 campuses. The results are confidential, but can help nudge students toward counseling services.

Other organizations are confronting the stigma head-on. The Jed Foundation, a national suicide-awareness group, in 2008 launched a Facebook "mood ring" application that lets students broadcast their emotional state and send comforting "vibes" to troubled friends. "It's about trying to reach students where they are and in a way that they understand," says Courtney Knowles, the group's executive director. The foundation also worked with MTV Networks' college station, which now mixes music videos with clips of rockers like Mary J Blige and Billy Corgan talking about their struggles with depression, eating disorders or self-harm; the station also airs frequent public-service announcements directing students to Web sites where they can take screening tests or find more information.

And it's not just pop stars who can assist. Many colleges encourage parents to pitch in, whether by watching out for warning signs or by coaxing their kids to seek help. Philadelphia University now issues students' relatives with a calendar highlighting the toughest times of the year for freshmen, while the University of Minnesota offers online workshops, videos and podcasts where parents can learn about conditions such as anxiety and Asperger's syndrome. "Often, parents are the first to notice their child is in trouble," says Marjorie Savage, Minnesota's parent-program director. "We need to work with parents, because they can deliver these messages when students most need them."

Still, students and counselors agree that the most effective outreach programs are those led by students themselves. "It's different when you hear something from another student," says Semmie Kim, a neuroscience major who founded MIT's chapter of Active Minds in 2007. She's held events like a bubble-wrap stomp to help students vent pre-exam stress, but says her group's most important role is to provide troubled peers with a sympathetic ear. "We want to make students realize they're not alone," she says. College will always be tough, but there's no need to suffer in silence.

Join the Discussion