President's Column: Mental Health Services and Support Needed for Student Success

By Nancy Beane, NACAC President

The NACAC Board of Directors just finished its annual June meeting in Denver. The days were long, with directors and staff discussing next month’s Leadership Development Insititute and Chair Planning Institute, the association’s new 2017-2020 strategic plan, our upcoming national conference in Boston, and efforts to revamp the SPGP.

Despite the varied topics, each conversation was centered on a desire to further NACAC’s mission and vision.

While much of the work of our previous strategic plan is important to continue, in many ways we are in a very different place today than we were a few short years ago. Yet, one of our chief priorities continues to be making sure all students are successful—a goal that can feel overwhelming and challenging at times. In this column, I’d like to focus on the mental health issues of our students, which is critical to reaching that goal.

Having worked for 43 years in public and independent schools, much of what I see, hear, and read today concerns me greatly. The admission process is becoming more stressful for our students as they face pressures—often self-imposed—to raise their test scores, write the perfect college essay, or maintain stellar GPAs. I wonder what we as an organization need to do differently as a board to better support students and families as we reimagine NACAC’s future.

Consider these facts from the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

  • 50 percent of all cases of lifetime mental illness develop by age 14, and 75 percent start by age 24.
  • Furthermore, 20 percent of those who are 13-18 have a mental health condition, and there is generally an eight- to 10-year delay between the appearance of symptoms and intervention.
  • About 50 percent of those 14 and older who have a mental illness drop out of high school, and 70 percent of those in the juvenile justice system have a mental illness.
  • Suicide is the third-leading cause of death in young people between ages 10 and 24, and 90 percent of those who kill themselves had an underlying mental illness.

Most students who obtain counseling do so at school, data from the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) show. But gaps still remain. According to one 2007 study, 20 percent of students need mental health services, but only one in five receive them. And several studies show that even though inequities are being given more attention in many schools today, students of color and low-income students are at greater risk for mental health needs but are less likely to receive the appropriate support. 

I don’t know about you, but I find this data and these reports incredibly frightening. Clearly, we need to bring much greater awareness and find solutions for these problems and we are starting to take steps in the right direction.  Last year, Dr. Frances Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain, spoke about mental health and adolescents at NACAC’s annual conference. The Chronicle of Higher Education also did a fascinating series of articles in October 2016, focusing on what is being done to address mental health issues in college orientations, community colleges, academic settings, and graduate schools. The articles also examine racial inequalities in mental health, the tremendous increases in calls for counseling, how to deal with suicides, and so much more.

NACAC will be hosting a webinar on June 28 on “Mental Health and the College Search Process,” which will discuss the mental health issues that can arise because of the college application process. Two clinical psychologists will share their experiences working with high school seniors who struggle with anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and dependency brought on by this upcoming transition. 

In my own school, one counselor specifically helps students with executive functioning, and we’ve hired a psychologist to further support student needs. Student panel discussions on stress and pressure have been shared with our board of trustees and our parents, and the responses have been hearteningly positive.

An Active Minds group (modeled after the national organization, which seeks to combat the stigma of mental illness on college campuses) was started. Students organized yoga classes for peers and developed fun but meaningful activities including “Stomp out Stress with Bubble Wrap” and making/using glitter jars, lava lamps, and stress balls.

So much needs to be done, and I would challenge all of us, as we examine closely the needs of our students—wherever they are on life’s journey—to rededicate ourselves to lead with understanding and boldness. Discussion and action in affiliates, at NACAC, and within the many organizations with which we collaborate is needed to better serve students.

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