The number of college students seeking mental health services and accommodations has been steadily increasing over the last few years– and even though the pandemic has intensified this unfortunate trend to a seemingly critical point, it most certainly wasn’t the sole driver of the mental health crisis currently plaguing institutions of higher education today. And although it’s not just students facing struggles with depression and anxiety, this epidemic appears to be more acute in younger, college-aged people with nearly 30 percent of people between ages 18 and 25 reporting a mental illness in 2019 and 25% of 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed reported thoughts of self-harm according to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While there are many theories for the reasons for the spike (including social media, overprotective parenting, and oversensitivity), it’s possible that the increase is coming from the decreasing stigma that used to accompany mental health problems in the past. With more and more people - especially young people - sharing their struggles, it’s important for those responsible to take note and provide the assistance required. Unfortunately, universities are struggling to keep up with the growing demand due to limited resources and budgets.
Also concerning is the exclusiveness of mental health services across varying institutions. While some four-year universities are seeing an increase in spending to address the demand for mental health services, a fifth of community college presidents surveyed in 2020 by the American Council on Education said their campuses didn’t provide mental health services.
This brings up even more important questions – are there certain segments of students that are reporting mental health issues at higher numbers? For example, there has been growing attention to the pressures college athletes are facing due to recently reported tragic events within this group. Would appointing a resident sports therapist to have a positive influence on this group? Data indicates that college students within the LGBTQ community are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. And Psychology Today reported that students with an arts or design major have the highest frequency of mental illness, followed by undecided and humanities majors. How can institutions get ahead of this decline in mental health before it reaches a point of disaster within their communities?
These are the sorts of questions that leaders within higher education should be striving to find the answers to and there is no better place to start than to ask your students directly what it is that they need to thrive in the college environment. As students return to campus post-pandemic, albeit with new stressors or a diagnosis of mental ailments, institutions must be prepared to properly address this heightened state of mental awareness and the need for protective measures.
Not only would the development of increased mental health awareness programs and health services help students achieve a greater sense of well-being, but it would also be to the benefit of the institution itself. According to the National Association for Mental Illness, 64 percent of college students who dropped out cited mental health-related issues as the reason why (pre-pandemic). As prospective students, and their parents, research colleges, and universities, you can guarantee that many will be looking into the accessibility and type of support struggling students are given when weighing their decision to attend.
Getting first-hand, voice-of-the-student insights into which groups are struggling, what they are struggling with, how they think you can help, and what their perception is of your institution’s campus culture and priorities pertaining to the overall well-being of your students will aid you in developing new programs and messaging that get struggling students the support they need to be successful at your institution, and in the post-academic future. And that is a win-win for all.