Colleges Facing Mental Health Crisis, Here’s What The Bachelorette’s Zac Clark Does About It

Judd Apatow, who directed the film knocked up, formerly called college the reward for surviving high school. This may be true for many. But like eating pumpkin pie while skydiving, such rewards aren’t always easy to accept. Evidence suggests college campuses across the United States have been embroiled in an ongoing mental health crisis for some time now. And that’s why Zac Clark, who was a candidate for ABCreality TV-show the bacheloretterecently embarked on their “Keep Going” college tour which continued from April 25th to April 30th.

These days, it can be tempting for some to blame everything about mental health on the Covid-19 pandemic and the precautions that have been implemented. However, it’s not like it’s all peaches and ice cream until 2020. For example, a study published in the General Psychiatry Archives found that almost half of college-aged people surveyed in 2001 and 2002 had had a psychiatric disorder in the previous year. That was two decades ago, when Justin Timberlake was still a part of *NSYNC, to give you some time perspective. And a decade later, a survey of college students across the country 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 while in college. Believing that everything will be fine when people stop 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 pizza will one day appear to save you from all the challenges in your life. In other words, while the Covid-19 pandemic may have wiped the blankets of the college mental health crisis, it’s certainly not what triggered it.

In fact, the United States faces a long-standing mental health crisis, not just among college students, but across nearly every age group. In 2018, I covered for Forbes a Cigna-Ipsos survey that found that 46% of Americans who responded felt lonely “sometimes or always” and 43% felt their relationships were not meaningful. So what happens on college campuses may be a microcosm of what happens in society at large. Nonetheless, 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-based therapist and talk show producer and host. “From a developmental perspective, students move through late adolescence into early adulthood, a time when major life decisions are being considered.” Birne-Stone added: ‘This is particularly the case for those who are ‘leaving’ at school, as it may be their first time living away from home. Many experience a new sense of independence accompanied by unexpected responsibilities with a relative lack of structure. University is perhaps the first time a student has to deal with so many different things at once. Remember what someone once said about college: “I have 99 problems and 97 of them need to be fixed by the end of the week. The other two were due to arrive last week.

So what does Clark and his college tour have to do with all of this? Well, he did the college thing, graduating from York College in Pennsylvania in 2006 with a degree in sports management. There he pitched on the baseball team for four years, during which he “loved walking the bases loaded and then hitting the side”. according to college website. But that’s not all. Clark himself had struggled with mental health and addiction issues. Here is an excerpt from the bachelorette in 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 Version Recovery. This program has since spawned a 501(c)3 non-profit organization: the Liberation Recovery Foundation.

Through the foundation, Clark helped organize last month’s six-day tour to six different community locations near college campuses in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. The purpose of the tour was to educate college students about various mental health and addiction issues and available mental health resources. Each tour stop started with Clark sharing his own insights and experiences with the students and community members in attendance, followed by a short run/walk with everyone. Next, attendees heard from panels made up of mental health experts and advocates from each of the local colleges. The tour also raised money for a Release Recovery Foundation college scholarship fund designed to help students 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 difficult experiences in front of hundreds of peers. This included students “having no 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 over years past, when even talking about mental health seemed like a big no-no. Clark recalled that in college, men “had to behave like badass, who have a lot of courage. We often talked about how fast you could bench press. Clark added that the perception was that “if you see a therapist, you’re 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 develop further. He urges all organizations on campus, ranging from fraternities and sororities to sports teams to mental health organizations to other student groups, to “deepen the conversations about mental health and ensure that all the world programs friends to listen to each other”. He also stressed that “university presidents need to talk to people, listen and hear what they have to say. There are too many stories of children asking for help but not finding resources. Clark worried that “big institutions don’t want to touch these issues because of their responsibility.” Actually, the title of that Rod Stewart song “I don’t wanna talk about it” shouldn’t apply here. Sweeping these issues under the rug and not dealing with them directly will only make the issues worse and come back to bite you, even if you have an extremely large stack.

Then there are the parents, who “despite their best efforts, may be part of the problem,” Clark said. Parents, of course, can be helpful. For example, without parents, many students would not exist. However, parents can add to the stress students feel or leave students feeling more isolated. Clark recounted how, while in college, he placed “so much self-esteem in my baseball career. This pressure got to me.” He urged parents “to call their children, watch them.”

While the tour brought together hundreds of participants, Clark stressed that this was just the beginning. “This is the data collection phase, after which we will have long meetings and discuss the results, putting together an action plan,” he said. “We will find clear and concise solutions and fund initiatives”, which may include other university stops as well. To put it another way, Clark’s “Keep Going” tour could go on. And the payoff could be helping many more students survive college better.

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