A severe hypochondriac blessed with few pressing health problems, I decide to pay a routine visit to Columbia Medical Services. Upon checking in for my appointment, I am presented with a questionnaire and instructed to hand the completed form to my doctor when she is ready for me. It wants to know: Do I feel little pleasure or interest in doing things? Do I feel tired, with little energy? And so on. It’s a survey that I’ve seen and largely disregarded in the past—I recall hastily circling responses to questions about my mental health, attempting to present myself as seemingly “normal” as possible to avoid potential divergences from whatever physical malady was ailing me that day.
This time, though, I considered the potential value of this simple form in detecting mood disorders affecting Columbia students. In an environment that is certainly high-stress and sometimes impersonal (dare I say cold, bureaucratic?), how can we ensure that students facing issues like depression recognize the resources available to them and receive adequate treatment?
The routine questionnaire from health services is a good start, so long as students take it seriously and doctors make sure to review it. While we’re all striving to make those medical visits as efficient as possible, research suggests that taking a few extra minutes on the part of both doctor and patient to focus on mental health could be an extremely effective means of screening for psychological issues in the student body. According to one recent study, depressive symptoms are more common among those who use campus health services than they are in the larger population—an important statistic, given that a good first step in treating a disorder is figuring out who has it. So while it certainly may feel foolish to ask a patient with pink eye about his poor appetite or trouble concentrating, the instances in which this questioning unveils potential symptoms of a mood disorder are worth the annoyed sighs of those who consider it a waste of time.
But why stop with mood disorders, and why stop at health services? Anyone who has taken introductory psychology will recall a little something called the diathesis-stress model: Certain people are predisposed to disorders like depression and anxiety, and environmental stressors can trigger the onset of symptoms that may have been absent in less stressful conditions. I am by no means arguing that Columbia induces mental disorders in its students, but I do think that the stress of going to school here is very real and could be implicated in a number of issues.
While anxiety is perhaps less of a concern for the administration, as it is less linked to suicidal ideation, panic disorders can be just as crippling as their depressive counterparts—and often, anxiety and depression go hand-in-hand. I hope that when considering the most effective means of screening students, health services officials include questions relating to anxiety disorder. Perhaps most importantly, this addition will help students who suffer from panic attacks to realize that they are not “crazy” (for anxiety without an obvious cause can make one feel that way), and that their peers are dealing with similar problems.
The more difficult question is how to engage in more informal “screening” processes in our day-to-day operations on campus. The classroom seems like an optimal place for professors and students alike to become more attuned to mental health, especially in seminars conducive to more personal interaction. As Mark Hay pointed out in a column (“Professing wellness,” March 7, 2012) this past spring, however, referrals to psychological services by professors are few, most likely due to unease regarding privacy and personal boundaries.
As someone who has cried in no less than four professors’ offices over my past three years at Columbia, I can confirm that professors here can be valuable resources for students in need of guidance (to the four of you, I extend my sincerest thanks and apologies). They should feel comfortable communicating with students regarding the many options available for treatment at psychological services, including support groups for various disorders. If students demonstrate a willingness to be more open when it comes to the somewhat sticky issues surrounding mental health, professors might be more inclined to involve themselves in our well-being.
The stigma surrounding psychological disorders, though much reduced in recent years, is still present and plays an active role in impeding the open dialogue needed for successful identification and treatment of students in need. Research indicates that although college students have demonstrated increased awareness of prescription psychiatric medications in recent years, this general knowledge has not eradicated the stigma associated with mental health.
I hope that the administration considers integrating mental health education as part of the university-wide programs we already have in place on topics like sexual health and diversity. Simply put, mental health education is far too prevalent and important of an issue to be marginalized in campus life. We must do everything in our power to let students suffering from any psychological issue know that they are normal, that they have resources, and that they are not alone.
Caitlin Brown is a Columbia College senior majoring in psychology and comparative literature and society. Pick My Brain runs alternate Tuesdays.