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Colleges struggle to help growing number of students with mental health trouble

Boston CollegeOlivia Spinale/Globe File Photo/Boston.com

The rise in suicides among those of college age has left many campuses across the country grappling with how best to help the growing number of students who are suffering from depression, anxiety, and a host of other mental health issues.

Some colleges are beefing up their counseling services or deploying mobile apps that allow students to routinely check in on their emotional health. Other higher education institutions are training academic advisers to spot the signs of depression and embedding counselors in campus cultural groups to help students of color, who may be less likely to seek traditional therapy. And earlier this month, Stanford University agreed to change its student leave of absence policy, allowing some students who had attempted suicide to remain in campus housing even if they took an academic break, instead of being forced to leave campus.


But mental health experts and advocates said it usually takes student activism or a high-profile tragedy for colleges to significantly step up their efforts and resources to address mental health problems.

“A lot of the work I’ve seen is student-led,” said Sasha Zhou, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, who recently coauthored a study on suicide among students of color on college campuses. “More and more students know other students who have mental health issues.”

The suicide of Boston College student Alexander Urtula is the latest incident to highlight the growing mental health crisis on college campuses. Urtula jumped off the roof of a Roxbury MBTA parking garage in May, just hours before he was scheduled to receive his diploma.

Earlier this week Boston prosecutors charged Inyoung You, a 21-year-old from South Korea, with involuntary manslaughter in Urtula’s death. Prosecutors allege that You, a former BC student and Urtula’s girlfriend for nearly a year and half, subjected him to psychological torture in person and in tens of thousands of texts exchanged between the couple over a few months, and encouraged him to kill himself.


Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins said You was aware of Urtula’s spiraling depression and suicidal thoughts. You’s abuse was witnessed by friends and classmates of both students.

You, who returned to South Korea, withdrew from BC in August.

But it is unclear whether Urtula, a son of Filipino immigrants who was studying biology, sought any mental health counseling at BC. Urtula had completed his classes in December 2018 and had returned to BC for his graduation in May.

“We have suicide prevention and [sexual harassment] protocols in place, and extensive support services for students through University Counseling Services, Office of Health Promotion and Campus Ministry,” said Jack Dunn, a BC spokesman. “But there were no reports that Alex was in an abusive relationship.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 15 and 25. according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

But tracking the number of college students who take their own lives can be difficult, and some universities say they don’t have numbers because the suicides may happen off-campus or during break.

A recent review by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found that from 2007 to 2016, at least 18 students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and 8 students each at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University killed themselves.

In 2017, about 34 percent of college students were being treated for a mental health problem, compared to 19 percent of students in 2007, according to the American Psychiatric Association.


But the likelihood of a student of color getting treatment is much lower than for white students, according to research.

For some minority communities, mental health issues carry a stigma, and students may fear that they will be misunderstood by counselors who don’t understand their cultural issues.

The national Healthy Minds survey found that while 43 percent of white college students who were identified as needing mental health services received treatment, just 23 percent of Asian-American students received treatment, according to Sarah Lipson, a Boston University professor who helped conduct the survey.

For international students, a majority of whom come from China and other Asian countries, the rate of accessing help is below 20 percent, Lipson said.

These international students may be even more isolated, far from home and their support networks, thrown into an environment that is much more diverse than their home country and maybe encountering racism for the first time, mental health experts said.

Many colleges are trying to address this gap between the services they currently provide and what students may need, said Alfiee Breland-Noble, the executive director AAKOMA Project, which works on mental health issues among African-American youth.

For example, Harvard is trying to hire more Asian counselors.

Along with hiring more counselors of color, colleges are trying to retain more faculty and staff of color, so students see more authority figures who look like them and may be more willing to approach them for help, Breland-Noble said.


They are also inviting black comedians or celebrities to campus to talk about mental health issues in the hopes of engaging students on this issue, she said.

“I think colleges are doing what they think is best,” Breland-Noble said. “But there are spaces in which we need colleges need to do a lot more.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.