Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! Sending out an SOS on Campus

Without any trouble we can all probably recall a famous scene in a movie or television show where someone flying a plane or captaining a ship sends out a distress call of “mayday, mayday, mayday” as a cry for help. This humorous scene from the movie Airplane even demonstrates the confusion that might result from the use of the term. All kidding aside, however, a sense of distress and a call for help is no laughing matter.

The use of the word mayday as a call for help originated in the early 1920s when airplane pilots and air traffic controllers needed to replace the SOS distress made by Morse code call (… --- …) with a term that could be more easily transmitted by voice. The term mayday is actually the English version of the French word m’aidez or m’aider, which literally translates as “help me.” It became standard practice to repeat the word three times in succession to ensure its proper transmission.

While we don’t use this term in our daily lives, the sentiment still applies: many who work and go to school on college campuses are, on occasion, distressed and need help. Unfortunately, in mental health crises, it’s not as simple as calling “mayday.” There has been much discussion as of late that university students are more and more likely to need mental health services during their college years. Mental distress on campus has particularly been of grave concern since the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, which left 32 people dead and 17 wounded. The gunman turned out to be a troubled Virginia Tech student. Although a few faculty and classmates had raised concerns regarding his behavior and statements, and despite the student having been briefly hospitalized for making suicidal comments, it seems he did not receive adequate mental health treatment. Of course, not every mental health case leads to violence, and avoiding every potential case of tragic violence would be nearly impossible.

Still, the Virginia Tech tragedy has made addressing mental health on college campuses even more of a priority for many. Colleges and universities regularly offer counseling services, 24/7 mental health hotlines, and a range of other activities and practices that help serve the mental health needs of students. The resources available for students, however, do not always keep up with the demand. According to a report published by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, growth in the numbers of students attending college has enhanced the need for mental health services, but that need is growing at about five times the rate of university enrollments. In addition, the mental health needs of faculty are often ignored. And finally, “academic culture” can make it difficult for faculty to admit mental health problems or spot such concerns among colleagues.

Mental health is not the only cause of distress on college campuses. Students may also face a range of other problems and concerns. Financial distress among students, for example, can be a tremendous trigger for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Sexual harassment and sexual violence may also cause significant distress for students, faculty and staff that experience it. And recently, concerns about food security on campus are growing.

Of course, these various forms of distress may very well be connected, as financial stress may be related to food insecurity – and both may lead to severe depression and anxiety, which fuels academic distress. No matter the cause, and no matter who experiences the distress – students, faculty or university staff – a call for help should be made. Know your resources on campus, and use them when you need them, or share them with those who do. No problem or concern is too small if it is causing distress. Just deploy your own internal “mayday” and get the help you need – and conversely, listen for distress calls around you, as you could be the one to come to someone else’s rescue.

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