Coming Up for Air and Seeing our College Mental Health Crisis: A Movie Review


College mental health: on the decline for at least 8 years.

Monkey Business/AdobeStock

Monkey Business/AdobeStock


“I’ve taught college for almost 30 years. I’ve never had so many students tell me they’re depressed.” - Chris Lamb

Thursday, October 6, is National Depression Screening Day. It is especially needed on college campuses. The mental health of college students has been declining for at least 8 years. Almost half have recently reported symptoms of depression and anxiety. Colleges have been setting aside “safe spaces” for those having trouble coping with school or the associated sensitive social problems like racism, sexism, and the like. Suicide is an ongoing risk.

Artists often sense and convey emerging societal problems. Before the pandemic, the director and author Robert Cicchini did so in terms of college depression and suicide risk in his award-winning 2019 movie, “Coming Up for Air.” I am not sure how I missed it. Maybe you did, too.

It is about a heroic mother and her son. The son, Stan Russell, played by Chase Yi, is in college, a star diver shooting for the Olympics and a scholar with a double major. His single mother, played by the Milwaukee theatrical star and cowriter of the script, Deborah Staples, struggles to support him financially. She senses when he starts to unravel mentally under the pressure, but he is “legally an adult” and others think she is overreacting.

The son’s psychiatrist coldly plays the HIPAA privacy rule to the letter of the law and closes off any conversation with the mother. I was sitting there wanting to shout out to the psychiatrist: “Come on, talk and listen to the mother. This is an emergency. Her son has a gun!”

Not to spoil the ending, but those in the talk back appropriately wondered where he was going to get the help needed with such limited resources for his age group, especially for those more at risk. With utmost irony, the the producer and co-screenwriter, Roger Rapoport, participated in a real-life family mental health intervention after the movie was done. Deborah Staples, with 2 teenage girls of her own, moved into working in an investment firm. As she said in the talk back, a mother cannot always be sure of what is the right thing to do.

I focus here on mothers rather than fathers because they have been inappropriately blamed in the past by psychiatry for their presumed role in causing schizophrenia and autism in their children.

The COVID-19 pandemic may be winding down, but not the epidemic of mental disturbances in our college age students. Depression screening and awareness is necessary, but not sufficient. We need to find creative ways to get around obstacles to care. A single 1-hour session on coping mechanisms shows some researched promise.1 Instead of gasping for breath, we will then be able to breathe more easily about college mental health.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.


1. Taitz J. The power of brief mental health therapies. The Wall Street Journal. October 1, 2022. Accessed October 4, 2022.

Related Videos
Dune Part 2
© 2024 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.