Our country is in a mental health crisis. And our colleges and universities are in a student mental health crisis.
This was true before the pandemic. And I’ve written before about how it’s getting worse.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and before the month ends it’s time for us all to commit to giving our students the support and resources they need.
Because data show that the trend is continuing in the wrong direction. A 2021 Healthy Minds Network study of college student mental health found that 34 percent of respondents had anxiety disorder and 41 percent reported depression. An American College Health Association National College Health Assessment survey in Fall 2021 found that 73 percent reported moderate or serious psychological distress. And researchers at Boston University engaged in a long-term study of college student mental health reported this spring that from 2013 to 2021, rates of depression among college students increased by 135 percent and rates of anxiety by 110 percent. Additionally, the BU researchers found, the number of students suffering from one or more mental health doubled from 2013 to 2021.
Worse, there is little reason to think anything is now improving. With war in Europe, economic stress around the world, political polarization in the United States, increasingly obvious effects of climate change, mass shootings seemingly every week, it is a stressful, disquieting, anxiety-producing time for all of us.
And yet we somehow expect college students to study and learn, to manage jobs and school and family obligations, to learn how to be adults and how to be productive members of society, while they’re dealing with all of that.
They’re struggling — a lot.
My favorite part of being a college president is interacting with students, helping them to unlock ideas and watching them succeed. On good days — like at our first in-person commencement in three years last week, when thousands of graduates from three graduating classes proudly put on caps and gowns, received their degrees, and celebrate together — they are filled with joy and determination, and it is an inspiring pleasure to watch them. But I also teach an undergraduate course each semester, and I’ve seen how hard things are. Some students weren’t turning in work. Some students were obviously distracted by worries outside the classroom. Many spoke of visits to counselors.
That last statement is a bit of good news. Part of the way we’ll solve this problem is by destigmatizing mental illness and making students comfortable asking for help. Another is by making available the counseling support and other resources they’ll need to succeed, and making those supports and resources as successful as possible.
At Pace University, where we’ve seen an increase in visits to our Counseling Centers, we planned a month full of initiatives and events to help our community de-stress and develop new skills to promote overall mental health. We offer counseling to our students and an Employee Assistance Program to our faculty staff — who we know face similar challenges of their own.
Our efforts are a good start. But they’re not enough, and they’re not the only answers. It is time for us all to engage in what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called, in face of a very different crisis, “bold, persistent experimentation.”
We must employ a range of strategies. At our Pace Counseling Centers, we’ve been providing short-term counseling, general group counseling, and topic-specific group counseling related to COVID, to anxiety, and to managing stress and strong emotions.
We must recognize that this will require ongoing effort, and we must try all sorts of approaches to see what works best for different students. We must also recognize that we all will need to be engaged in this effort—not only when students are in crisis or struggling but in advance, by helping them to build emotional intelligence, resilience, and self-care strategies.
Colleges and universities can lead the way, but we’ll need work alongside parents and families, and with the support of government and philanthropy.
As an individual, I’m committed to doing my part. I recognize that every student I interact with may have problems I’m unaware of, and I do everything I can to display compassion. As a college president, I’m working to spread that commitment across our faculty and staff, and to ensure we provide the resources our students need. But most of all, as a community member — and a parent — I know this is a problem we need to solve. Let’s all get to work on it.