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Never before have young Americans have enjoyed the access to magnitudes of affordable mental health care resources provided by the modern higher education.
While ensuring that the mental health needs of any population are met is bound to be an unending struggle, problems of accessibility remain. Compared to other populations, US universities and university students enjoy an abundance of mental health resources.
Yet, despite the resource-rich environment that can be seen in today’s universities, mental health problems still abound. Research has shown that the relatively drug-permissive culture characteristic of higher education, the stress of receiving and paying for an education, and the negative effects of heavy social media use common among young people are leaving countless 18-23-year-olds in a state of distress.
Above all these, one under-recognised factor which may be contributing to issues of anxiety and depression in university populations is the one-sided political climate characteristic of US higher education.
It’s no secret that higher education in the US has a significant liberal bias. The problem is not just that liberal arts colleges have a liberal to conservative faculty ratio of 12.7 to 1 – but that the political majority is often hostile to the less-represented group.
I have personally been called out and labelled as part of a ‘racist mob’ by a famous speaker who took issue with an organisation I write for – and faced subsequent threats and social ostracisation by my peers as a result.
Untold numbers of other conservative students like myself have suffered both verbal and physical abuse at the hands of not just their fellow students but also from academics who lean left. These instances of violence, open hostility and abuse serve to punctuate the underlying inhospitable nature of the higher education climate for conservative students. This leaves many students feeling alone, unsafe and on edge.
A recent survey asked 1,500 students if they feel welcome and safe on their universities. The results revealed that less than half of self-identified conservatives also feel welcome on their universities with 38% revealing that they feel actively unsafe. Compare this to the 88.5% of self-identified liberals who report feeling safe and at ease, and one is left to suppose that there’s likely a connection to being right of centre and having a distressing university experience.
In addition to making conservatives feel unsafe, universities also seems to galvanise them into a certain unhappy role. Kassy Dillon tells of how her own experiences receiving ‘a significant amount of harassment’ for her mainstream political stances, having her peers ask her university to ban her from writing and being booed at graduation. Through it all, she describes how the experience made her more conservative.
While Kassy’s story is generally a positive tale of a woman who stood by her beliefs in the face of opposition, not all students have such an admirable transformation. Many young people enter higher education with standard conservative values and beliefs and are quickly mislabelled as a racist, a supremacist, and a person who is not deserving of an opinion in the eyes of their professors and classmates.
This leads to a certain portion of individuals starting to loath themselves. After four years of criticisms and second-class treatment, some begin to adopt the falsely bestowed negative labels, spiralling downwards into a destructive cycle of self-loathing and endorsement of the toxic beliefs.
As vice-chair for Minnesota College Republicans, I’m in continuous contact with a lot of young conservatives from around my state and the country and have seen a sad number of people who just couldn’t take the stress of being their class’s public enemy number one. Of course, there are also those who are so terrified of the mass scrutiny and vitriol that they actually pretend to be liberals. Unfortunately, that group of people is 55.1% of conservative students.
This means that conservatives are four times as likely to deliberately misrepresent themselves as their liberal friends. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist or a psychologist to understand how this is mentally unhealthy.
Mental health on universities is being given a great deal of the attention it deserves. As a society we are moving closer to being able to say that we take adequate care of our young people’s mental and emotional needs. However, the fact that we separate politics from the person is a downright travesty. Before adopting the belief that ‘It’s OK that conservatives don’t feel welcome,’ students and faculty need to remember that conservatives are people too.
Mislabelling the conservative student as a fascist and shouting him down in class because he has different ideas on taxes than you do is hurting another human. That student is going to go back to his room and call home, explaining how they don’t feel welcome, and just wishes that people didn’t believe he’s a racist so he could make friends. Or maybe that student will turn to drugs, drop out, or withdraw inside themselves to cope with the constant hatred and feelings of being unsafe that await them each day outside the university.
The fact that a significant, calculable, identifiable group of university students live like this is unacceptable and more important than politics. It’s time for universities to recognise this problem and take a stand before things get worse or conservatives realise it isn’t worth it to pursue education at the cost of their psychological well-being.
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