Tiffany Walker first started seeing and hearing things as a 20-year-old college student. Unable to get the help she needed, Walker said she had to drop out.
“I had my family, but that wasn’t enough,” Walker said.
Speaking at a press conference with Walker last month, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) said Walker’s experience is all too common. They, too, have had experiences with mental illness in their lives through friends and family.
Almost 57 percent of students reported experiencing anxiety, while 37 percent said they suffer from depression, according to a 2015 American College Health Association survey. But only 12 percent reported to be in counseling.
While most colleges have counselors available to students, many don’t have other resources, including screening tests, that could better help the students, Durbin said in a press release.
The two lawmakers are pushing a bill – The Mental Health on Campus Improvement Act – which will make federal help available for colleges and universities to expand their mental health awareness, outreach and direct support services. This bill is part of a larger bipartisan mental health reform package that hopes to bring more awareness to mental health. This bill was introduced in the U.S. House in January and has yet to be considered in the U.S. Senate.
In April, Durbin sent 115 letters to universities and colleges across Illinois to figure out what campuses offer in the way of mental health services. He found the results to be “troubling.”
“It was pretty clear that we aren’t giving the resources that are needed,” Durbin said.
Both Durbin and Schakowsky said only a handful of students go to counseling. The situation gets more severe when students want treatment but their colleges don’t have the tools to help them.
The ratio of counselors to students is 1: 1,654, and about 7 percent of students need help for mental illnesses, according to Durbin’s research.
Durbin said he wants this bill to “reduce the stigma of mental health and enhance more conversations about it.”
The death of a good friend’s son by suicide prompted Schakowsky to sign onto the legislation.
“It got me thinking, ‘What could we have done – as parents? As a society? As colleges?’”
Schakowksy said this is not going to be something she gives up on, and that she wants students to be able to reach out for help.
“We want to make sure they [the resources] are there when the students are ready,” Schakowsky said.
Alexa James, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, called Durbin and Schakowsky heroes for talking about this issue.
While more students are asking for help, James said “stigma is a great barrier to treatment.”
James said a lot of people don’t know mental health literacy, and increasing it would be a huge step to destigmatizing this issue.
David deBoer, associate director of the wellness center at Loyola University Chicago, said with student enrollment increasing, the need for mental health resources has increased as well.
“We want to plug gaps, end the stigma,” deBoer said. “We want more students coming forward to get treatment.”
DeBoer said having the resources needed “helps students get the courage to start their journey.”