Guest column by Sienna Kresge, senior dance and philosophy major.
When I was 16 years old, I visited someone very close to me in an addiction detox hospital. I saw him lying half-conscious from withdrawals in a bed that smelled like urine, confined to a room with nauseating, chartreuse walls and one tiny, prison-like window. His skin looked thin and sallow, like his eyelids were made of old latex gloves. When I greeted him, his ability to remember someone he had known for 16 years was as bad as his ability to formulate a sentence without it sounding like he was talking underwater.
If that memory seems particularly disturbing, it’s because it absolutely was. I’m not sure how facing a loved one who struggles with alcoholism never sent me into any episodes of mental illness – I’m probably one of the lucky few. In fact, it wasn’t until college that I ever experienced any degree of depression and anxiety, and when I did, it took me a while to understand that I wasn’t a defective human machine – that what I was feeling wasn’t unnatural and was able to be properly addressed.
At this point in my academic career, I’m usually shocked to meet or hear of college students who have never dealt with mental illness in some capacity. Certainly, some people are more prone to it than others for various reasons, and suffering from mental illness in college is not inevitable. However, the obvious prevalence of mental illnesses among students demands the prioritization of psychological health treatment and education on campuses. If not, students may be more likely to develop toxic habits and coping mechanisms during a period of their lives that is especially formative for establishing healthy patterns of behavior into late adulthood.
Growing up, most of my ideas about addiction came in the form of macabre anti-meth campaigns on billboards and TV with grotesque images of scabbed lips and black teeth. Despite this enormous stigmatization, you would have to be blind not to find binge-drinking or recreational drug use somewhere on a college campus, and Chapman is no exception. I would never say that these factors automatically lead to addiction or that they are inherently bad, but I have nevertheless seen students – friends even – use these behaviors as forms of escapism for mental health issues that need legitimate care and attention. For this reason, it seems valid to posit the importance of making mental health services accessible and dependable on campus.
Had I learned earlier in my college career that my depression and anxiety was normal and treatable, I would have sought the resources I needed much sooner, especially if those services were available on campus. If students are taught coming into college that suffering from mental health issues was not unlikely, and what to do if they end up in that situation, then it may seem logical that their lives would be positively impacted for the future. Encouraging the treatment of mental illness without abusing substances is only the first step. Chapman must augment its Student Psychological Counseling Services to include greater mental health awareness and education, as well as hire a greater number of qualified staff, broaden hours and expand the center to accommodate the high demand of students who need help. If college is about preparing students for the future, then having access to this kind of education and resources while they’re here may help them sculpt a better, healthier lifestyle in the long run.