Judd Apatow, who directed the movie Knocked Up, once called college the reward for surviving high school. That may be true for many. But like eating pumpkin pie while skydiving, such rewards aren’t always easy to take. Evidence suggests that college campuses across the U.S. have been embroiled in an ongoing mental health crisis for a while now. And that’s why Zac Clark, who was a contestant in ABC’s reality TV show The Bachelorette, recently embarked on his “Keep Going” college tour that kept going from April 25 to April 30.
Now these days, it may be tempting for some to blame everything mental health-related on the Covid-19 pandemic and the precautions that have been implemented. However, it’s not as if everything was peaches and creamsicles before 2020. For example, a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that nearly half of college-age individuals interviewed in 2001 to 2002 had had a psychiatric disorder over the previous year. That was two decades ago, back when Justin Timberlake was still part of *NSYNC, to give you some time perspective. And a decade later, a survey of college students around the country conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) from August 2011 to November 2011 revealed that 73% had experienced some type of mental health crisis during college. Believing that everything will be wonderful when people are no longer talking about face masks and other Covid-19 precautions would be a bit like thinking that a prince or princess riding a magical unicorn and carrying some pizza will one day appear to rescue you from all of your life’s challenges. In other words, while the Covid-19 pandemic may have removed the covers off of the college mental health crisis, it certainly wasn’t what started it.
In fact, the U.S. has been facing a longstanding mental health crisis across not just college students but across nearly all age groups. Back in 2018, I covered for Forbes a Cigna-Ipsos survey that found 46% of Americans who responded felt alone “sometimes or always” and 43% felt that their relationships are not meaningful. So what’s happening on college campuses may be a microcosm of what’s been occurring in broader society. Nevertheless, the college years can bring their own set of additional stresses that can exacerbate things. “For many students, college is a time when mental health issues can arise or worsen,” explained Susan Birne-Stone, PhD, LCSW, a New York City-based therapist and talk show producer and host. “From a developmental perspective college students are transitioning from late adolescence to early adulthood, a time where major life decisions are being contemplated.” Birne-Stone added, “This is especially the case for those who ‘go away’ to school, as this may be the first time they are living away from home. Many experience a new sense of independence accompanied by unexpected responsibilities with a relative lack of structure.” College may be the first time a student has to deal with so many different things at once. Remember what someone once said about college: “I’ve got 99 problems and 97 of them are due by the end of the week. The other two were due last week.”
So what does Clark and his college tour have to do with all this? Well, he did do the college thing, graduating from York College of Pennsylvania in 2006 with a degree in Sport Management. There he was a pitcher on the baseball team all four years, during which he “loved to walk the bases loaded and then strike out the side,” according to the college website. But that’s not all. Clark himself had struggled through mental health and addiction challenges. Here’s a clip from The Bachelorette during which Clark described some of these challenges:
As Clark alluded to in the clip, his subsequent recovery eventually led him to co-found with Justin Gurland in 2017 a New York-based addiction and mental health recovery program called Release Recovery. This program has since spawned a 501(c)3 nonprofit: the Release Recovery Foundation.
Through this Foundation, Clark helped organize last month’s six-day tour through six different community locations that were close to college campuses in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. The goal of the tour was to raise awareness about various mental health and addiction issues among college students and the mental health resources that are available. Each tour stop kicked off with Clark sharing his own perspectives and experiences with those students and community members in attendance, followed by a short run/walk with everyone. Then, attendees heard from panels consisting of mental health experts and advocates from each of the local colleges. The tour also helped raise money for a Release Recovery Foundation college scholarship fund designed to assist students who are seeking treatment for addiction recovery and mental health issues.
In a recent conversation, Clark mentioned how during his visits a number of students shared their challenging experiences in front of hundreds of peers. This included students “not having friends”, “contemplating their existence”, “not feeling attractive”, and “feeling like they were on an island” with no resources to access. Just the fact that students were willing to share such feelings marked a big improvement from years past when even talking about mental health seemed like a big no-no. Clark recalled how in college, men “had to act like pretty tough guys, who have a lot of grit. The talk was often of how fast can you bench press.” Clark added that the perception has been that “If you see a therapist, you are not cool. You are weak if you ask for help, if you talk about feelings.” The reality, of course, is the opposite, as recovery was “the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” according to Clark.
Clark would like to see such conversations about mental health expand further. He urges all organizations on campus, ranging from fraternities and sororities to sports teams to mental health organizations to other students groups to “deepen the conversations about mental health and make sure that everyone’s scheduling friends to listen to each other.” He also emphasized that “Presidents of Universities need to talk to people, listening and hearing to what they have to say. There are too many stories of kids asking for help but not finding resources.” Clark worried that “Major institutions don’t want to touch these issues because of liability.” In actuality, the title of that Rod Stewart song “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” shouldn’t apply here. Sweeping such problems under the rug and not dealing with them directly will only make the problems worse and worse and come back to bite you, even if you have an extremely large rug.
Then there are the parents, who “despite their best efforts, can be part of the problem,” said Clark. Parents, of course, can be useful. For example, without any parents around, many college students would not exist. Nonetheless, parents can add to the stress that students feel or leave the students feeling more isolated. Clark relayed how during college he had placed “so much self-worth on my baseball career. That pressure got to me.” He urged parents “to call their kids, check in on them.”
While the tour brought together hundreds of attendees, Clark emphasized that it was just the start. “This is the data gathering phase after which we’ll have extensive meetings and talk about findings, putting an action plan in place,” he said, “We’ll come up with clear and concise solutions and fund initiatives,” which may include other college stops as well. To put it another way, Clark’s “Keep Going” tour may keep going. And the reward for that could be helping many more students better survive college.