Mental health problems certainly exist outside of college. However, it’s a particularly critical issue during that time. Think about all the unfamiliar responsibilities that come once a student graduates from high school. For many, it’s the first time they need to make important decisions with less parental support than they’re used to – including how to navigate their physical and mental health.
According to new research, more than 60% of college students met criteria for at least one mental health issue in 2021. That’s a staggering 50% increase from when the study first began in 2013. The data, which covers more than 350,000 students at 373 campuses, points to stark differences among various races and ethnicities. Here are some troubling highlights from the eight-year research period:
- The highest rate of mental health treatment for Asian, Black, and Latinx students was at or below the lowest rate of treatment for white students
- American Indian and Alaskan Native students had the largest increases in depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and other mental health issues
- Arab American students experienced a 22% increase in mental health issues, but an 18% decrease in treatment
- White students had the most significant increase of non-suicidal self-injury and eating disorders
- Overall, there was a 135% increase in depression and a 110% increase in anxiety
More Diversity, In-Classroom Support Could Help Students’ Mental Health
While the results of the study are sobering, it gives leaders in higher education a benchmark from which to improve. If mental health support is already offered, it’s time to assess any barriers to care. The more access all students have to preventative or treatment services, the better equipped they’ll be to face life beyond the college years.
For example, increased diversity in a school’s behavioral health staff may help non-white students feel more comfortable seeking help. People like to talk to people who can understand underlying cultural challenges. From an Inside Higher Ed article:
“[Amaya] Jernigan wrote legislation at WVU that resulted in the hiring of a Black, Indigenous and people of color counseling specialist and should increase team diversity further. ‘If I wanted to go seek help, no one would understand the experience of being a Black woman on the campus. That’s unacceptable,’ Jernigan says. She hopes to see other new staff who specialize in supporting groups such as international students and transfers. One survey respondent says, ‘The best thing my college has done in response to the pandemic was to bring an Asian American counselor to the wellness center team.’”
Institutions could also urge professors to regularly check in with students about how they’re faring with the workload. It may not be a professor’s job to address student mental health, but it’s in their best interest (and the best interest of the institution) to ensure students aren’t on the brink of burnout. Sarah K. Lipson, a Boston University assistant professor, agrees:
“In the big picture, we need to bring mental health into the classroom so that it doesn’t require a student needing to make time or getting motivated to seek help. There is a lot we can do to bring mental health into the default of students’ lives.”
Peer Support, Self-Awareness Can Help Students Develop Better Coping Skills
There are many factors that contribute to a person’s mental health, and some of them are situational (i.e., stress, loss, conflict, etc.). When that’s the case, resources like self-awareness tools, peer support services, or motivational events can help. If those resources are offered alongside other meaningful change (like counselor diversity), they can spark powerful shifts in the right direction. Here are some additional ideas for colleges and universities:
- Provide after-hours support. Crises don’t happen on a schedule. If funding allows, make night and weekend counseling services available as needed
- Form peer support groups. Talking to peers in a group setting may feel less intimidating for students who are wary of therapy
- Continue to remove bias and shame. While the stigma around mental health has changed, make sure students know their problems aren’t too small to seek help
- Make self-awareness a priority. Tools like personality assessments could give students a framework from which to understand their unique stress triggers and the best ways to cope
- Ensure students know what’s available to them. Students have a lot going on, so it’ll take more than a few bulletins posted on campus. Overcommunicate if necessary
Stay tuned for the next blog post, where we’ll elaborate on these ideas – and share even more ways colleges and universities can enhance mental health support for students.