To the reader:
I wrote the majority of this essay before I left the university after my Spring 2018 semester. I was asked my opinion on how the school could better address the existing and largely ignored stresses of being a student at Truman State University. However, as mental illness is largely a subjective experience, I decided to opt out of publishing it and, instead, left it to sit more of just as a journal entry.
However, after my girlfriend notified me that TSU’s Counseling Services released an absolutely appalling “Limitations to Services”, I was instantly outraged at the ridiculous restrictions that these limitations imposed on students. I will spare you the explanations, but you should definitely read them yourself. And just in case they decide to take it down due to the backlash, here is a link where you can download it in PDF form.
Essentially, Truman State has said, “if you are dealing with any symptoms of mental illness, such as loss of motivation, self-harm, or are even struggling with your courses, we are allowed to turn you away.”
In my most recent Facebook post, I summed it up as “if you are struggling with the symptoms of mental illness, we can’t help you with mental illness.”
In such a dire time of need for the university to reform and establish progressive ways of handling the absolutely awful living conditions of the school, this is several steps in the wrong direction, essentially telling the students that “we can’t help you, sorry!”
As the last resort to many students, UCS even suggests driving to Columbia, which is nearly two hours away, or even to Saint Louis or Kansas City, nearly double that distance, to seek help for their mental illness. Needless to say for many, this is either impossible or highly impractical.
In an article published by The Index, Truman’s student newspaper, reports that Sue Thomas, the president of the university, is seeking to hire a consulting firm, wondering why students aren’t attending the school anymore.
Truman State University President Sue Thomas said at the recent Faculty Senate meeting that university enrollment is down around 250 new students and around 400 full-time enrolled students overall. She also said the retention rate has been gradually decreasing over the years.
All I have to say to that is, and pardon my French, no shit. Instead of resolving issues internally, the university is allocating more funds for a consulting firm that is basically going to tell them exactly what their current students can tell them for free.
Even The Princeton Review reported that Truman State University was in the top 10 for the least happy students in the US.
Hell, the rest of this essay is going to tell them exactly what kinds of things they should be doing instead of hiring a consulting firm and being completely blind about the current state of affairs when it comes to the students’ quality of life.
Leaving Truman changed my life for the better, and I encourage anyone struggling to reconsider subjecting yourself to torture at a university with only one selling point: we’re cheap.
I’d rather you pick a place that makes you a priority and not your tuition. It gets better, but sure as hell not in Kirksville.
Here is my letter:
Dear Truman State University (3/28/2018),
Truman State University, the “Harvard of the Midwest”, is known for its rigorous academics, high affordability, and absolutely rampant mental illness.
The 2014 Missouri College Health Behavior Survey provides valuable statistics on the state of mental health at my university. Nearly 1 out of every 5 students responding to the survey reported a depressive episode and suicidal thoughts; our suicide rate is nearly three times the rate of other Missouri colleges, and we’ve experienced four suicides over the course of two years.
Four. If calculated at a rate per 100,000, we would be at roughly 32, nearly four times the national average.
The above is the usual response from the school’s administration: an email of sympathy letting the student body know about recent events.
Aside from the usual outrage and media coverage over what little the school has done to combat the apparent endemic of mental illness in the community, it seemed there was even less the people in positions of power were doing.
“Seek help if you are affected” and “we’re sorry this happened” were the usual sentiments expressed.
It feels inhuman for the administration to think that a couple of emails are enough to soothe the agony, especially following a lost life while idly standing by in the aftermath. What is being done? Who is in charge of this? How can we prevent this from ever happening again? And where can I get answers to these questions?
After attending Truman for two years, the shared mindset for many that I have talked to is that if you want to want to love life, do not attend this university.
Aside from the bland location and constantly elevated stress, there are many factors to why Kirksville is an awful location. The weather is usually overcast, bleak, and cold — absolutely amazing for anyone sensitive to the weather. A lack of recreational activities almost gives partying and drinking on the weekends as the only way to loosen up, all at the expense of exacerbating any mental illness symptoms they might have.
An understaffed counseling center and sparse access to high-quality, affordable mental health professionals in the area make Kirksville a breeding ground for mental illness.
The interaction between administration and student is also very limited, meaning that the policies governing students are rarely discussed.
However, as it comes with all different instances of outrage, there is often the need for a solution without the solution being presented. Without a course of action, the lingering emotions stay just that: emotions.
I have no experience writing policy nor do I have any experience running an institution, but I do know that there is no single blanket solution for mental illness. It is a volatile and elusive demon that cannot be solved with puppies on the quad or yoga sessions.
When a fellow brother of my fraternity asked me for advice on possible solutions to our mental health problem on campus, I did my best to conjure up reasonable and effective ways to address the problem of mental illness before it comes to yet another tragic student death.
Unfortunately, even with the persistent issue, I have rarely heard proposals such as these. Of course, they are just ideas and completely up for debate whether or not they would be effective or practical if brought to life.
In my positive psychology course, I learned about primary, secondary and tertiary prevention. Tertiary prevention is the types of things that treat or address a problem when it is already a problem (e.g. liposuction for morbid obesity, pulling a tooth out after a cavity), secondary prevention is the type of measures we put in place when a problem is beginning to occur (e.g. monitoring blood pressure, mammograms to detect early forms of breast cancer), and primary prevention is stopping a problem from happening before it happens (e.g. healthy diet and exercise to prevent diabetes, vaccination/immunization).
These concepts are very important to mental health because even if the person is susceptible, the environment can play a key role in whether or not someone develops a mental illness.
To start, Truman does an absolutely horrid job introducing students to college life. A jam-packed week of seminars and icebreakers is a perfect way to get an incoming student acclimated to the university’s campus and environment, yet Truman seems to sacrifice that in exchange for team building exercises and seminars that teach you the obvious.
Although these topics are not unimportant by any means, topics such as how/where classes operate, Truman’s academic policy, and creating a schedule seemed to be skipped entirely. Transitioning from the rigidity of high school life to the relaxed college laissez-faire approach is often jarring and often does not go as smoothly as many would like.
Topics such as personal finance (i.e. building credit, finding work), mental wellness, choosing a major — these things were skipped during my orientation week. If topics that were conducive to the transition into adulthood were more of a focus, I think that many students would be better equipped entering such an unknown and intimidating stage of life.
Obligatory participation is also an interesting (taxing) aspect of college: one of my professors strictly outlined what it takes to get a 100% in participation (which, in some classes, can decide as much as a letter grade): for 3/3 points, one must say something especially insightful or speak a high number of times. What those things mean is ambiguous and not an actual measure of what a student can contribute, but many times just the opinion of the professor.
In addition, it might even hurt the grades of those who are quiet, anxious or have trouble attending class from time to time. I’ve had a number of professors state that if a certain number of classes are missed, then the course would be dropped automatically, stacking on the pressure to perform continuously and leading to burnout.
Truman is especially known for its “high value” or, equivocally, “low budget” — it’s one of the biggest selling points of the university.
Low tuition rates are often the most attractive factor for incoming students as it is highly competitive with schools around the Midwest. However, this might mean that financially, students may struggle with paying for college in the first place.
Even several thousand dollars can be an immense burden on someone who has no means for paying for college in the first place, yet Truman imposes an incredible standard for those receiving scholarships: a 3.25 or above GPA. Anything below that number begins to reduce scholarships entirely. Although I agree that a standard should be put in place, one that demands such high academic performance is bound to lead to a high-stress environment, even before a student begins classes.
Truman’s low cost doesn’t come without setbacks, however. On-campus residents of the university are required to purchase a meal plan which is accepted at any of the four dining locations across campus. Essentially all of our food is supplied by Sodexo and is possibly one of the worst parts of the university.
I would say the best thing that they consistently put out is a cheeseburger. Two white-bread buns, a single patty, and a slice of yellow cheese.
Everything else is absolutely unappetizing or inedible, making me feel like I’m stuck in high school or even worse, a prison. Much of what Sodexo seems to be absolutely devoid of nutrition and, worst of all, taste. Anything healthy seems to be revolting and, if you don’t want to eat a salad every day, you’re usually at a loss of options. Their meats are extremely dry and unseasoned, the vegetables are usually overcooked and obviously not fresh, something that Sodexo seems to take pride in.
Unused meals can be cashed out at convenience stores where the usual sodas, chips, and candies are located. Calculating the average meal price for a 14-per-week plan each semester, the student pays roughly $9.00 for each meal, yet at these c-stores, they are only converted to a mere $3.75. What?!
With diet being such an important aspect of both physical and mental health, it is extremely difficult for students to eat a wholesome diet every day without buying their own groceries, which usually only comes after moving off campus. Unfortunately, during the adaptive period of college, acquiring healthy eating habits may be one of the deciding factors of maintaining that healthy lifestyle.
For the cost of a relatively good entree at a three-star restaurant, I would expect more from the dining halls than something lower in quality than McDonald’s. Truman should provide higher standards of living to accompany their high demands for academic performance and reflect their living costs.
Finally, due to the lack of outlets for relieving stress, many students seem to turn to drinking as a way to wind down after a demanding week. Bars and fraternity parties seem to be the only way of getting out — other than that, we’re stuck at home watching a movie or forced to drive 3+ hours to the nearest hometown.
As a substance with many links to worsening mental illness, alcohol and its mass use across campus silently yet undoubtedly contribute to the issue. Is such a dependency a symptom of the high-stress environment, a contributor to mental illness, or both?
A lack of an assisted transition and education about what college really entails leaves incoming students clueless. The high rigor and persistent demand for success leave them in a constant state of stress and the lack of a healthy environment put students further and further down the rabbit hole.
Which leads us to…
This is the second line of defense: secondary prevention, which aims to address and slow the progression of the problem.
It seems the administration of Truman loves to interact with students with a 10-foot pole. I intermittently receive emails containing surveys on the current state of affairs. Are you satisfied with Truman? Are you feeling depressed? How are you involved with Truman’s community?
While these are important statistics every educational institution should be asking, I feel like Truman’s involvement with the student body really stops there. Much of it seems to be damage control, scrambling to find some kind of solution as quickly as possible while the pressure is on.
I don’t believe that it’s a problem when it becomes a problem, but rather something that should be constantly be considered and addressed.
Even though I would consider myself to be someone who is rather involved in the campus’ events, all I’ve seen so far are emails — inhuman and are not a replacement for true interaction between the administration and the student body.
Truman students rarely get a day off.
Even when the sidewalks are covered in ice, there are multiple reports of severe injury and concussion, and teachers cannot get out of their own driveway, the director of Truman State University’s police was the only one to send out an email stating that:
With this inclement weather, you are encouraged to use your judgment about your own safety. If you do not feel safe traveling to or on campus, please do not do so. If you are a student, please contact your faculty about the class(es) you will miss.
The administration basically put student’s class attendance and academics above their safety. If this doesn’t tell you why the state of Truman’s mental health crisis is the way it is, then I don’t know what will. After that day, a petition was created that received over 1,000 signatures, yet there was no statement from the administration.
More ironically, even though the university is named after a president, we don’t get President’s Day off.
The constant persistence is partly why people burn out. A single-day break here and there wouldn’t necessarily extend the school year for far too long and allow for more time to catch up on school work.
ATSU and Truman bringing Kevin Hines, a suicide attempt survivor, was an important first step in bringing the community together. With his important message that hope can be found even after the darkest of times, I think that many people were inspired and motivated by his words.
But it was just that. We brought someone to boost morale for a little bit, and then the administration seems to slither back into its hibernation. An institution that continually seems to hand a student a pamphlet and basically say, “it’s your problem, you go do something about it” is the wrong way to do it.
When you have a problem that’s presenting itself as a problem, then you need tertiary prevention. How do we treat the issue at hand?
When over 1,200 students are struggling with these issues, we can’t expect there to be a blanket solution to everything. Some people believe that hiring more counselors or more qualified professionals would help, but there will never be an adequate number for so many that are struggling.
Recently, an email to the student body from our student government included this change to our tuition on which to vote for:
- Increasing the health fee from $27 to $37 per semester to increase on-campus access to psychological and/or psychiatric resources.
It’s a good attempt, though one that doesn’t seem to make any substantial change to the lack of resources. There are only five counselors that work for the university’s counseling services (UCS). $62,000 seems like it would only pay for another counselor maximum considering the average salary for a psychologist or psychiatrist is many more times that.
In addition, as sympathetic and understanding professors might be initially to the concept of mental illness, many seem to ignore the fact that it’s not being a one-time thing and can’t really be planned ahead for.
I’m going to be depressed tomorrow and the day after, so I might not come to class. I should be undepressed after that, though.
It’s not a concussion. It doesn’t go away after being given an extension for one assignment or test or one office hours. And it sure is a pain in the ass to be proactive about something that can hit you randomly one day.
Even worse, if you suffer academically, you’re given a semester on academic probation, which means that if you continue to do poorly, you’re asked to leave until you can prove that you can be a “good student”. If the reason you’re not performing as well as you’d like is that of mental illness or its symptoms, the resources to find a remedy for that requires you to look elsewhere.
This kind of “kick ’em while they’re down” mentality seems to be shared with a lot of organizations on campus. If someone is struggling to perform, we shouldn’t slap a label on them and threaten them with suspension from the university or financial penalties.
Winter this year nearly lasted from November to April: that’s an insane 6 months of winter. Even now, Kirksville is shrouded in intermittent periods of snow and below freezing temperatures. Regardless of what you’re going through, the bitter cold, overcast skies, and short days are bound to make the lives of many that are living here miserable. And it definitely has.
This was a seriously long blog post.
But, I think it went through a lot that’s wrong with Truman State University, though I have never attended another institution. I think many colleges or even organizations in general share such a mindset: one where there is too much focus on the academics or how many people are paying tuition and not enough attention to students’ well being.
These are all of the things that I have experienced while going through Truman. I’ve been through their counseling services, health center, disabilities office, faculty, and academic offices numerous times over the course of the time I’ve been here.
We need to be an institution that values growth and experience rather than pushing for sole academic performance. What does the slogan “Don’t Follow, Pursue” even mean if the students are just following the same routine as everywhere else, being subjected to the same stress and pressure as everywhere else.
It seems the mantra of Truman doesn’t align with its policy. We should be pursuing a new age of education, not one that is lagging behind and having its students suffer.
I’m not here to complain about how I should be handed straight A’s or given a second chance, but rather, I want the administration and faculty of Truman State University to take action to make our college one that is an environment where a student can thrive. Instead of the constant pressure to perform due to threats of financial penalty and even suspension, Truman needs to reconsider whether they’re just trying to make money or if they’re trying to educate the next generations of students.
We can’t assume that good academic performance is what makes students healthy. It’s healthy students that achieve good academic performance.
Thanks for reading,