Metro Detroit's colleges work to develop a culture of care for mental health of its students

By the time Kelly Toal began taking classes at Wayne State University, she had seemingly reached a stable place in her life. She had strong support, good friends, and a purpose. She was certain that her mid-teen anxiety and depression diagnosis was situational—related more to her parents' difficult and lengthy divorce than to her own mental health. 

So she was surprised—and frightened—when depression and suicidal thoughts crept back into her life. 

"I thought that part of my life was over," says Toal, a psychology undergrad. "Getting hit with depression that seemed so random was jarring, and sad, and hard."

For the first time, Toal saw her depression as a mental health condition. "That made me realize I needed to deal with this. Shake hands with it and look it in the face," Toal says. 

While her experience is unique, it's not uncommon. College students, often living on their own for the very first time, face significant stressors, including compounding social, financial, and academic challenges. Those predisposed to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions are especially vulnerable. Experts say that 50 percent of lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 14, and 75 percent begin by age 24. 

Concerned Metro Detroit stakeholders, recognizing the prevalence of youth mental health conditions and the value of early diagnosis and treatment, are leveraging initiatives designed to boost education about mental health, challenge social stigma, and pave access to treatment. And they're partnering with schools to achieve these goals.

Keeping college minds healthy

Suicide is the second most common cause of death among college students, and some experts consider campus mental health challenges to be epidemic. In a recent survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 73 percent of students who responded say they experienced a mental health crisis at college, and cited stigma as the top barrier to seeking support on campus. 

This fall, more than a dozen Michigan colleges and universities launched a program to increase support and awareness of student mental health conditions.

With the support of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation, Ethel and James Flinn Foundation, Children's Hospital of Michigan Foundation, Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, and Michigan Health Endowment Fund, 13 participating schools will spend the next four years as a JED Campus. Through a partnership with New York-based Jed Foundation, schools will receive technical assistance to assess their current mental health support capabilities, and gain tools to reduce suicide and promote mental wellness.

But the program is a lot more than boosting funding for student counseling centers. It's about creating a culture of campus-wide awareness.

"A lot of schools don't have a game plan to deal with mental health conditions. There's not enough awareness in education. Resident assistants, faculty, and security don't know the warning signs," says Andrea Cole, executive director and CEO of the Flinn Foundation. "We're building comfort levels in talking about it."

Andrea Cole

The effort begins with an assessment by the Healthy Minds Study, a University of Michigan survey to measure stigma on campus, and a dive into policies and procedures.

Because most students who are overwhelmed or anxious don't, or won't, seek counseling, Jed provides training for everyone who interfaces with students, including deans, residence assistants, equity and diversity officers, and even fellow students.

"Everyone is trained to respond to low risk [situations] and refer students for help," says LeAnna Rice, campus advisor for Jed Foundation. "We are trying to create a culture of care on campus."

Promoting cultural sensitivity, for which Jed provides framework, is a priority for Michigan funders, so all students feel empowered to get treatment when needed, rather than failing or dropping out.

"It's a good time to see if they can be caught up with, so that they receive the right attention and care, if needed, so mental health issues don't get in the way of their path to higher education," says Larry Burns, president and CEO of Children's Hospital of Michigan Foundation

Years before college

It's best to recognize and treat conditions long before college. That's why Kent, Jackson, and Oakland intermediate school districts are implementing Project AWARE to improve the mental health literacy and provide youth mental health first aid training to those who interact with kids. The program is grant-funded through the Michigan Department of Education by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

In addition to training 1,000 staff in the Holly, Pontiac, and Waterford school districts, Oakland Schools will also offer training to the public six times a year, and work toward sustainability before the grant ends in September 2019. 

"We're working to recognize sooner when a youth is struggling, and engaging in the conversation that there are people to support you, and get you connected to someone who can help more," says Holly Douglas, manager of community programs at Oakland Schools.

A needs assessment revealed treatment barriers from transportation challenges, so all three districts are partnering with Easter Seals Michigan to co-locate mental health services directly in the districts. 

Plain talk about mental health

Students at the Wayne State University campus

A scientific, health-based framework works for Heather Irish and her 19-year old nonprofit MINDS. She shows scans of healthy and affected brains to students in middle and high school health classes to illustrate the medical nature of mental illness. In every class, a majority of students admit to knowing someone who has talked about or attempted suicide. 

Irish empowers kids to help themselves and each other when times get tough. "Go on the internet and show your friend the symptoms. Point to what you feel. That takes the pressure off," Irish says. "I have found over the years that friends are incredibly important in providing support and saying let's go to the clinic together."

For Kelly Toal, a caring friend became a strong confidante. "She was the first to talk so openly about mental health, and the result was I opened up to her," she says. "When I hit bottom, she was there. I told her I was feeling suicidal, and she stayed by my side. In the past, I would never have reached out."

When life piles on, Toal urges students to recognize their own individual efforts as victories. "Keep trying and you'll find a place or a space where you are happy being exactly who you are," she says.

"Once, my older brother told me he just wanted me to be happy being Kelly Toal. And after 10 years of struggling with my mental health, I'm proud of who I am, and who I can continue growing to be."

Hear more about Kelly Toal's story at Opening Minds, Ending Stigma.

This article is part of "Children of Michigan," a series on the importance of health and wellbeing for Michigan's children. It is made possible with funding from the Children's Hospital of Michigan Foundation.

All photos by Nick Hagen.

Read more articles by Claire Charlton.

Claire Charlton is a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Connect with her on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.
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