Northeast Indiana Colleges Form Mental Health Coalition

Sep 27, 2016

This month, WBOI is reporting on teen mental health issues. When people think about teens, they often think of middle and high school students and sometimes  forget about teens transitioning into college.

In the last report of the series, WBOI’s Lisa Ryan looks at mental health in higher education, and what’s being done to help young people who are legal adults, but still technically teens.

This summer, representatives from universities around Northeast Indiana met for the first meeting in what would become a collegiate mental health coalition.

A third of students entering college have ongoing mental health issues, according to The Center for Collegiate Mental Health.

The organization was started by Alice Jordan-Miles, who works for IPFW and plays a variety of roles in the suicide prevention community. She’s the co-chair of the state suicide advisory council and counsels families after a person dies by suicide.

Jordan-Miles’ first goal for the coalition is to secure funding for suicide prevention training. She says training is important for faculty and students to recognize the warning signs of depression and suicidal thoughts.

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health says a third of students entering college have ongoing mental health issues.

“That impairs their academic success. It really does,” Jordan-Miles said. “Universities really need to look at that.”

She says there is a strong correlation between student success and having mental health programs on campus.

Jordan-Miles wasn’t sure if there would be an interest from the colleges, but four schools came to the first meeting, including IPFW, Indiana Tech, the University of St. Francis, and Huntington University. Other schools have joined or said they would join, including Manchester University, Trine University, Grace College, and Ivy Tech Northeast.

"Mental health is absolutely vital for a student to be able to succeed academically," Stoker said.

Dan Stoker is the vice president for student affairs at Indiana Tech. He says the coalition was formed to share ideas on how to better serve students’ mental health, and he hopes to see it grow in the future.

Stoker knows how important it is to protect students. He says a first-year law student died by suicide in 2014.

Since that student’s death, Indiana Tech has partnered with Parkview Behavioral Health to bring in counselors and provide a 24-hour hotline for emergencies. In Stoker’s more than 20 years of working in higher education, this is the first time he’s been on a campus without a full-time counselor, but he says having access to Parkview is a valuable resource.

“In times of emergency, we can rely on additional staff to come in and provide the services on a broader, as needed basis,” Stoker said.

"Offering the counseling is a way to make it more affordable and accessible and more welcoming for students."

This is a similar arrangement that IPFW offers. Both schools provide five free counseling sessions, with additional Parkview services if needed.

Judy Tillapaugh is the fitness and wellness coordinator at IPFW. She says offering these services is important because students are on a tight budget.

“Offering the counseling is a way to make it more affordable and accessible and more welcoming for students to get the help that they need,” Tillapaugh said.

While depression and anxiety are common among students, she says there are other mental illnesses to be aware of too.

“When we think of mental health, that definitely is (an) umbrella description,” Tillapaugh said. “There is no one mental illness, there are several types of mental illnesses.”

Eating disorders are a problem among some students, and post-traumatic stress disorder is also a possibility among students who are veterans.

“We know that there’s a certain percent of our military students that have gone through some horrific situations, and highly likely some of them are dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome,” she said.

Connie Kerrigan of Parkview was also in the initial planning stages for the coalition. She says some of these mental health challenges could result in suicidal thoughts, which is why suicide prevention training is the first goal of the coalition.

Kerrigan says health, both mental and physical, exists on a continuum.

After they train the staff, Kerrigan hopes to engage students. She says the Regional Collegiate Mental Health Coalition’s second goal is to create messaging for college students to address how to talk about mental health, and normalize mental illness. Kerrigan says if physical health were treated the same as mental health, some people would never seek treatment for health issues, like a broken foot.

“It hurts a lot, and I really can’t hardly get around my day, and I’m wincing in pain, right, and I’m so miserable, but I got this. I’m going to manage it on my own,” she said.

Kerrigan says health, both mental and physical, exists on a continuum. Some days, a person is healthy, but other days, a person might have symptoms of a cold or exhibit signs of depression. In both cases, medical help is needed.

“The brain drives so much of the rest of the body,” Kerrigan said. “The brain is another organ within the body, just like the heart, or the kidneys, or whatever, but the misfunction of the brain can impact all the other aspects of your health.”

"This younger generation is the hope for us to change the conversation."

Kerrigan hopes more people start talking about mental wellness in the same way they talk about physical health.

“I honestly think that the generation today of high school, college age and younger, they have the opportunity and the ability to change the way people talk about mental health, given the way they communicate, and the way that they’re open to sharing,” Kerrigan said. “This younger generation is the hope for us to change the conversation.”

Even though college students are adults, Kerrigan says their brains are still developing, and will continue to develop until they’re around 25 years old.

This is why she says mental health is important for teens and young adults, and why she hopes the coalition will continue collaborating on ways to improve the health of Northeast Indiana college students.

Elsewhere in this series, WBOI looks at suicide preventionjuvenile justice, and teen mental health in students transitioning to college

It is important to seek professional help if you or someone you know has suicidal thoughts. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also find more information and resources at The Lutheran Foundation's website, Look Up, which has a 24/7 hotline at 1-800-248-8439.