Highs and Lows: Navigating Mental Health with Alone and Together

By Stephanie Sewanyana

I have been seeing the culmination of hard work from my fellow students in the form of graduation photos and videos finishing off their college journeys. As a recent graduate of NC State University, I am happy to celebrate the accomplishments of my talented graduation class, but I can’t help but think about how just days before finals and graduation celebration began, our Wolfpack family suffered two more tragic losses, after a tough semester where multiple students died from a variety of causes. Out of a total of 14 deaths, seven of them were suicides. These tragic deaths seem to reflect a nationwide trend in the US of students dealing with depression and other mental health struggles.


Open conversations about mental health have luckily become more common as younger people have been honest about sharing their struggles and desires to get better. But what happens when colleges and universities fail to  address the root of these struggles before it gets to the point where one decides to end their own life? Many universities like NC State have on-campus counselors and mental health providers who are available to students if they need the help.However,  sessions with these counselors are limited before the school offers the option to go to an outside therapist. This is not effective for those who need long term services and may not be able to afford traditional therapy, as well as students feeling like they can’t connect with their counselor knowing that they only have so little time with them. 


I was able to talk with some of my NC State friends and classmates who had experiences with asking for support when it comes to mental health. One of these students, Naya Bartlett, shared her thoughts on how universities deal with students’ mental health concerns and their responses to a mental health crisis on campus. Because mental health is still a taboo topic despite the large strides to make talking about it more acceptable, there are still problems with professors “not taking into account mental health” when giving assignments. We see this a lot with students in STEM fields like engineering and chemistry. For many first year students, this can be overwhelming when they are in a “new environment where they have never been away from their friends and family; basically isolated from their primary support system.” Furthermore Naya discusses how students may not feel like they have anyone to lean on, especially from professors who may not want to work with them to fit their individualized educational, but more importantly, personal,needs. I thought that you could tie that issue back to educational accommodations and disability needs of a variety of students, and how this sometimes is not included in the conversation of mental health.


We also discussed the resources available to students and how at NC State, a student can only receive a certain number of free counseling sessions before they have to seek outside therapy. Naya brought up the fact that “students from families who stigmatize mental health would not have financial support to go seek outside help if they lack the funds to pay out of pocket.” Even when students can meet with counselors, often you have to start over with a new therapist, so there is a lack of consistency and little opportunity to make a connection with someone who would provide individualized care and without needing to rehash the same issue over and over without solutions.


Something I think schools do not understand is it is not enough to just provide half solutions to problems. For example, providing mental health days while assignments and tests are due the following day or “limited offer” counseling sessions that feel like a revolving door. Some may say struggle and bad days are what you sign up for when attending an academically rigorous institution, but it is not normal for young people to be so stressed by the demands of higher education that they contemplate  ending their own lives. At NC State, it seemed like there had to be a major event–a student death–in order for the conversation of mental health to be brought up. I think schools across the country could do a much better job in accommodating students’ mental health needs because utilizing such strict, one-size-fits-all standards and superficial solutions to long term issues does not work at the root of the problem. Schools should want to lead the charge in destigmatizing mental health because when students are treated with compassion and care as opposed to stigma and discrimination, they can flourish and reach their full potential. Adhering to destructive norms about mental health that can be tied to ableism further puts students on the margins of society where they can’t access services they need to live happy lives.