It has been noted at the University of Rhode Island that physical health is more of a priority than mental health. Professors allow excused absences from class due to physical injury, such as a broken limb or concussion, with a doctor’s note. But as the number of physical injuries is decreasing, mental health related issues are on the rise.
Melissa Favali, a sophomore psychology major, explained her concern about expressing her private life to professors. She said it’s easier to obtain a doctor’s note for physical pain or illness as opposed to being excused from class due to stress and other non-visible health issues.
“A lot of people aren’t going to be comfortable going to their professors and telling them what they’re feeling if they’re having issues with themselves,” Favali said.
Junior Lexi Santanella agreed that professors don’t take mental health as seriously as physical injuries. “They think every college student is under stress so they think, ‘why should you be any different, why should you get any special treatment?’” Santanella said.
Most professors allow students to turn in work late if they have documented proof to be excused due to a medical emergency. Depending on the professor and class, the student is allowed a certain number of days to make up the work and not be penalized. Junior Claudia Courtenay believes that the same rule should apply to those struggling with mental health conditions such as an attention deficit disorder (ADD), anxiety or depression. Samantha Comparone, a junior with a psychology minor, believes that professors aren’t the only part of the problem.
“I think the stigma against people with mental illnesses has improved versus in the past but there’s still a lot more improvement we can do,” Comparone said. “I think people should be just as understanding with mental illnesses that they are with physical injuries.”
While many students suffer from mental health issues, the number of students taking action falls short. Despite special events drawing attention to the growing issue, such as the university’s annual 5K for Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention, it is still a (mostly) silent struggle that requires a lot of attention. In addition to the 5k, URI Eating Concerns Advisors, UReca!, is holding its second annual National Eating Disorder Awareness Walk on April 29.
Megan Kuhnly, a senior psychology major, is heavily involved with mental health activism on campus. She is part of UReca! and mental health is the topic of her honors program project. She recalled a recent personal experience where she was unable to attend class due to mental health reasons, but was uncomfortable admitting this to her professor, so she said she was sick instead. After she and her family suffered from the loss of a loved one it became difficult for her to function normally.
Many students have said they need to take a “mental health day” because they have been stressed about an exam or presentation, affecting their sleeping and eating schedules. Kuhnly was completely thrown off when she was depressed for a significant amount of time.
“It definitely affects your healthy lifestyle that you’re trying to live… because you’re constantly in your head,” Kuhnly said.
According to the American Psychological Association, depression and anxiety are the two most common mental illnesses that college students suffer from. In a recent study, about one-third of college students had difficulty attending classes due to depression in the past year, and almost half said they had issues with anxiety.
“People in general think it’s something that can get better by either giving medicine or getting them to be happy again,” Kuhnly said. “They need to understand it’s more than just a surface level way of helping.”
Like many others, Kuhnly wishes that professors would be open to having private discussions about health issues and how it affects their schoolwork and attendance. “Having that ability to seriously address the teacher is better than not having that at all,” she said.
The university has a counseling center directed by Robert M. Samuels, Ph.D, which is open to helping students with their struggles. In the past twelve months, approximately 1,000 students have received help, which is a 25 percent increase over the past six years. Those numbers are growing consistently as mental illness climbs as well. Samuels believes that there may be more students open to talking with faculty, but because of the stigma about mental health, not as many of them are coming forward. The center offers both individual and group counseling sessions with concentrations in subjects such as interpersonal relations, anxiety, depression, family alcoholism and substance abuse and grief. Soon the center will begin a program called “Bouncing Back from Stress” where students can learn how to manage their stress.
The center’s staff is a mix of those with their Ph.D, Doctor of Philosophy, Psy.D, Doctor of Psychology, licensed mental health counselors (LMHC), clinical social workers and advanced graduates in the nursing program with a concentration in psychology.
Dr. Samuels states that the center makes resident advisors aware of the services they offer at the start of each year in case of emergency. The center also has a Facebook page with the hours of operation and location.
“Students need to take the first step and reach out,” Dr. Samuels said. In response to the criticism from students, Samuels said they may be voicing their concerns to other students and not trained professionals. Students also may not get an appointment right away and may have to wait two or more weeks for their follow-up appointment. In regards to the university’s Disabilities Services for Students (DSS), professors support the system and respect it because it provides aid to students and their academic success. It is backed by federal law, so students are legally exempt from class if DSS is alerted of a medical condition. This differs from professors being informed individually by the student because the professors have a choice whether or not to accommodate students.
“People are paying attention and listening,” Dr. Samuels said. “There is a growing awareness of the issue.” Students believe that it would be difficult to have professors accept mental health days as excused absences.
“There could be those people who try to take advantage of being absent by saying, ‘Oh I’m depressed’ when they really just want to sleep in,” Kuhnly said. “It’s hard to distinguish where that line is and that’s what could be causing an issue.”
The counseling center is located in Roosevelt Hall in room 217. The triage hours are 10 a.m. to noon, and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays. Hours available for appointments are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays with the exception of Tuesday’s hours extended to 6:30 p.m. Appointments can be made in person during these hours.