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State must better support its universities to deal effectively with mental health issues

Minnesota needs a plan to do better. It must recognize the complexity of mental illness, and quit pretending violence is its only face.

Jose Leonardo Santos

Jose Leonardo Santos

Why do we put forth violence as the face of mental illness? Why wait for violence to recognize struggles with anxiety, mood disorders, trauma, and more? Mental illness damages communities constantly, but we wait for incidents like last month’s at Normandale Community College before we talk about it. Then it’s already too late — we’ve ignored the many voices silently or quietly asking for help. We keep ignoring them, focusing on violence instead.

At Normandale, a student assaulted two professors and another student, with a gun in his possession. Police then talked him off a parking ramp, where he threatened suicide. As a professor at another Minnesota State institution, Metropolitan State University, I feel sadness, not surprise. Like all of us, students confront serious problems, aggravated by school stress, pushing them to painful extremes. At Metro State, a study of 51 full-time students found only 27 percent graduated within six years. In 2017, a presentation there revealed 41.4 percent of students were diagnosed or treated for mental health conditions in the last year, and 30 percent have considered suicide.

Crises are common

Every semester, students reveal crises to me: suicidal thoughts, a child or spouse suffering a mood disorder, abuse at home or work, addiction struggles, trauma from rape and war. I listen. I tell them about university resources I’ve been told about. I want it to be a moment of great change. It often isn’t. Often, university systems make things worse instead of better.

Once, a student of mine suffered a panic attack at school. Our contracted security followed protocol, as we all often do with mental illness (when we don’t outright ignore it): treat it like a threat, send it away, and disregard what the person in pain is asking for. The resulting incident aggravated the student’s condition. The student hasn’t been back to school since.

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Universities should be the perfect site to address mental illness. They have it all: bulletin boards and email blasts to announce available resources, spaces for groups to meet, personnel to provide assistance, community connections. It only works, however, with adequate resources.

More resources are needed

Mental illness seems too daunting, too expensive to deal with. Administrators feel that pressure. I once asked what it would take to meet the mental health needs of our campuses. The reply? “It’s unfair to ask,” followed by “Thank you for your time,” as they quickly moved on. Maybe they believed we don’t have what’s needed to do what’s right. So they spend their energy defending the university from unfair accusations, touting a few hires and initiatives when far more are needed. Perhaps our energies should be spent making more resources appear. Perhaps the state of Minnesota must provide what Minnesota State needs.

When that happens, different outcomes appear. As a young man, I suffered greatly in college, drank too much, and spiraled out of control. Eventually, I woke up in a hospital room. Before I even saw my father, an assistant dean at my bedside offered her warm smile and calm voice. She explained what was already taken care of, resources and connections mobilized while I was out cold. A sense that someone had my back cracked through my despair. School didn’t present another thing to worry about and fail at, but support to help make things better. It feels unfair I got what I needed when so many of my students don’t. Is it simply because I went to a fancy East Coast Ivy League school and they go to a school in Minnesota State?

One in five U.S. college students consider suicide. Minnesota needs a plan to do better. It must recognize the complexity of mental illness, and quit pretending violence is its only face. We need to know how to deal with immediate emergencies, like the one at Normandale. We need to know how to deal with the scores of students who already suffer quietly, who aren’t violent, but whose lives are disrupted. Perhaps most importantly, we need to find ways to proactively ensure campuses are places of support and healing, where people can come and find the help they need before their suffering becomes unbearable. Professors wish to do this. Administrators wish to be able to, also. It’s up to the state to give us all the means.

Jose Leonardo Santos is an associate professor of social science in the College of Arts and Sciences at Metropolitan State University.


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