The talk of a global “loneliness epidemic” is increasingly common: The U.K. now has a loneliness minister and the United States has labeled loneliness a public health concern in need of intervention. At universities like USC, students are often forced to rebuild a social life from scratch, naturally making college campuses some of the loneliest places in the world.
The demand for mental health care services at USC is growing, and the University is responding by making institutional improvements. However, these improvements alone cannot and will not effectively shift the perspectives of students in need. It is time for USC to take a more creative and personal approach to addressing the mental health of the student body by hiring students to help counsel their peers.
Colleges across the nation are facing a mental health care crisis. The number of students seeking help at USC alone has seen a 168 percent increase over the past five years, according to the Center for Health Reporting. In turn, it is imperative for USC to evaluate whether or not students today have access to the right resources.
Statistically, students are arriving on campus more anxious, depressed and stressed out than ever before. The number of students seeking help for mental health issues has outpaced overall enrollment growth by 25 percent, according to a 2016 report by Penn State University.
In response, USC has established initiatives to provide an institutional foundation for overcoming loneliness. The Rev. Jim Burklo, an associate dean at the Office of Religious Life, has created on-campus initiatives to address the loneliness epidemic. “Campfires,” for example, arranges weekly student-led meetups to explore how groups — fraternities, sororities and residential communites, to name a few — and individuals can cultivate healthy environments for friendship and conviviality on campus.
USC is stepping up in other ways, too. The school’s counseling center is setting up an Office of Campus Wellness and Crisis Intervention to tackle mental health-related issues as they occur.
There has been a progressive shift in the way universities respond to students’ mental health issues. A decade ago, professors and faculty at most schools would not look twice at a student who abruptly started failing tests or missing class. Today, faculty are trained to recognize and respond when a student is in crisis. It is reassuring that, while there is still much work to be done, at the very least, university officials are collectively playing the role of vigilant watchdog over mental health.
While these initiatives are necessary to set that foundation and to demonstrate the institution’s recognition of the problem at hand, they alone will not revolutionize student mental health care. In the information technology era, college students are confronted with a contemporary breed of loneliness that can lead to mental health issues nourished by social media.
Today, it is easier than ever before to socially withdraw oneself. Students retreat to their phones for comfort if they feel intimidated or overwhelmed. This type of dependency can quickly develop a vicious cycle where students retreat further and further into the digital world until meaningful connections are nonexistent. For these students, the idea of attending a weekly meetup to combat loneliness would be a far stretch.
Technology and social media are especially relevant when it comes to recognizing the mental health care crises on college campuses. Though struggling individuals tend to withdraw, reaching out is their best shot at getting the help they need. While the University strives to provide adequate mental health resources, it is inefficient if students do not proactively get help.
There is a vast gap between the overall need on campus and the school’s ability to properly help its students. To bridge the gap, USC must invest in mental health resources.
“It really is a resource issue,” Chief Health Officer Sarah Van Orman said to The Orange County Register. “To provide for all the mental health needs of their students, meaning long-term care… many of our campuses would need to double or triple our staff.”
That being said, USC needs to get creative with its strategies for approaching students in need. In addition to hiring more support staff, hiring students with previous experience in mental illness prevention would provide a tangible on-campus resource that other students would be more likely to take advantage of. These students could speak directly from their own experiences with campus organizations to offer a safe forum of discussion to vulnerable groups.
These initiatives would take time and effort to execute effectively, and USC has admitted it does not have the resources to help every student. In turn, it has become necessary for USC Student Health to reach out and harness the influence of their own student body. If anyone has the potential to change the mindset of a student in need, it is other like-minded individuals who face the same challenges.