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Jeff Sessions’ Attack on Mental Health Support Ignores the Role of Campus Climate

Focusing on mental health and building systems of support should be lauded and supported. 

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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jeff sessions
Photo: Andrew Harnik, AP

The biggest headline from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ talk at the Turning Point USA conference recently was his participation in a “lock her up” chant led by high school students. But the most worrisome aspect of his appearance was actually the content of a speech in which Sessions accused colleges and universities of “coddling” young people. 

While the content of his speech resembled a blog-post screed, the more worrying aspect is the weakening of a movement to acknowledge and support mental health care for students. It’s sad that the nation’s chief law enforcement officer would diminish research-supported practices that help young people process stress.

The 2016 National College Health Assessment found that 1 in 5 college students experienced a mental health condition, and more than one-third of students reported feeling so depressed they could not function. Coupled with the election of a president who openly embraced xenophobia, talked openly of sexually assaulting women and dabbled in racist rhetoric, it is easy to understand how for many students, life post-November 2016 has become even more challenging.

Focusing on mental health and building systems of support should be lauded and supported, rather than mocked. By ridiculing evidence-supported strategies to improve mental health, Sessions has further stigmatized an issue that college leaders and medical professionals are working daily to make acceptable, which is critical for the mental well-being of young people: College students who experience suicidal thoughts are less likely to seek treatment if they attend a school where mental health issues are stigmatized. In short, Sessions’ mocking on mental health issues breeds the idea that it is a weakness. 

As a college professor and a student affairs administrator, I have worked with a number of students who have experienced severe mental health challenges. They come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, racial and ethnic identities, and political ideologies.

We should be thankful for the cadre of mental health professionals who support students (as well as faculty members, staffers and families), and for organizations such as the JED Foundation, The Trevor Project and the Steve Fund, to name three, who are working tirelessly to increase awareness of mental health and emotional well-being of young people. Sessions could use his platform and visibility to promote these organizations. Some of the Turning Point USA participants will face challenges to their emotional well-being. How likely are they to seek help after hearing the attorney general of the United States attempt to score political points by his derision of efforts to help students?

Genuine debate of ideas is an aspect of the college experience. However, honest debate requires ensuring that the terms of engagement are fair. For many students, attending college is a subtractive experience: The institutional climate is hostile, and role modeling and mentoring are in short supply. Students are ill-prepared to engage in debate when their physiological and psychosocial needs are not met.  

Universities can and should employ an important tool to diagnose these needs for students by implementing a campus climate assessment. By analyzing how students experience the campus environment — and observing gaps among aspects of identity such as race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class and ability status — institutions can work to create environments with the appropriate mix of support and challenge.

Additionally, institutions should challenge the “sports fan” approach to discussing contentious issues. Instead of selecting provocateurs whose intent is to score points, speakers who can articulate and defend their perspectives are the most valuable additions to a college environment. A speaker willing to engage with a moderator or with a panel of diverse perspectives can provide the optimal educational engagement for students. One viable model is the Oxford-style debates organized by Intelligence Squared; the winning side is determined by the debater who has been more successful in changing the audience’s minds.

We should encourage engagement with complex ideas on college campus. However, we have to ensure that all members of the campus community are welcomed and supported to engage on this level. Our civil servants, who serve all Americans of all political perspectives, should support a focus on mental health and thoughtful approaches to debate contentious ideas.

Richard J. Reddick is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at The University of Texas at Austin, where he also holds courtesy appointments in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Corpus Christi Caller Times

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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