In recent years, the mental health of college students has become an increasing focus in the news, as more and more students seek help on-campus for anxiety and depression. The exact cause of this development is unclear and much-debated. Some experts point to increased pressure, stress, and a generational lack of coping mechanisms. Others hope that it shows the stigma of seeking treatment is lifting, and that students are more open to talking about their problems and finding solutions.

In this blog, we’ll take a look at how to best help your college-age children, friends, and family. The conversation is one that everyone should be having, whether you’re personally experiencing a mental health issue, helping someone else cope with their struggles, or even just know someone at risk. Everyone can potentially play a role in assistance and recovery.

Trends in Students’ Mental Health

Experiencing mental health issues in college is more pervasive than you may realize. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), one in five students experiences a mental health issue during college, and 75% of mental illnesses are onset by age 24.

In 2016, Penn State University’s Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s published their annual report, which studied more than 100,000 college students nationwide and found an increase in students pursuing mental health services over the past six years. The report cited that anxiety, depression, and academic stress were the main factors that students referred to in seeking services, and notably that “more than half of students visiting campus clinics cite anxiety as a health concern.” In the American College Health Association’s study, half of the college students said they experienced “overwhelming anxiety,” and 32% said they felt so depressed at times “that it was difficult to function.”

Carrie Landa, director of Behavioral Medicine at Boston University, notes that statistically, the rates of major mental illness cases (bipolar disorders and schizophrenia) have remained fairly unchanged, however the recent increases in anxiety may have social and environmental causes for the current generation of college students.

Landa says that these students seem less able to cope with problems that to a previous generation would have seemed part of normal life. Dori Hutchinson, director of services at BU’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation says, “I think a lot of kids don’t know what productive struggle is. When it’s hard, they think, ‘Why is it so hard? What’s wrong with me?’”

Potential Causes of Increased Mental Health Issues

Today’s college students deal with a range of issues, including earlier academic pressure, the compulsive use of social media, helicopter/snowplow parenting, and a heightened focus on preparing for a successful career. Dan Jones, the director of counseling and psychological services at Appalachian State University, points to escalating pressures during high school, which causes student to arrive at college already burdened with stress. Overprotective parenting also gives students less incentive to develop life skills or independently make important decisions, making it more difficult to adjust to life in college.

In addition to heightened academic pressure, college is also a time of a major life transitions, new friendships, increased independence, and exposure to drinking and drugs. Lack of sleep and poor eating habits can also affect student health. Additionally, the loss of day-to-day family support is a large adjustment for most students, and many people go through periods of feeling alone or homesick.

The Role of Students

When faced with a mounting mental health issue, students often rely on their friends to step in. Peers can be extremely helpful in being the first responders to mental health crises, and the more mental health is discussed and understood, the less it is ignored and stigmatized.

To that end, the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) and the Jed Foundation have created a College Guide that aims to help students and parents recognize the common warning signs of mental illness and protect their mental health in college. The College Guide makes the following mental health recommendations to students:

  • Build connections: Get involved in your campus and community. Attend campus events and clubs, sporting events, student organizations, and volunteering activities.
  • Manage stress: Exercise, sleep, make to-do lists, meditate or pray, eat healthy foods, and avoid drugs and alcohol.
  • If you find you cannot manage stress: Seek advice from peers and family, and contact a resident advisor or the campus counseling or guidance center.

The Role of Parents

While parents are not present on-campus, they are definitely an integral part of any student’s mental well-being.. According to the College Guide, parents should share any family mental health history with their child before students leave for college. The parents and student should have an action plan in place for the child to follow if they are feeling overwhelmed or struggling with anxiety, depression, or anything that seems out of their control. Parents should call students and periodically check in and offer support.

The Role of Colleges

Awareness and on-campus mental health services at colleges have increased in recent years due to the tragedies and suicides that have resulted from mental health crises. Time cites the massacre at Virginia Tech University as one of the worst cases to result from untreated mental illness, where it was revealed that the gunman had pursued on-campus mental health services as a student three times, but was unsuccessfully treated.

Each college varies greatly in the type and amount of mental health services offered on-campus. According to NAMI, most, but not all, colleges have a counseling center or health clinic on campus. Students should be aware of the on-campus services that are available to them before they leave for college.

As an example, Boston University has comprehensive services for students, including the Student Health Services Behavioral Medicine, the Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders, the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, the Danielsen Institute, and the Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center. Mental health services provided by Behavioral Medicine are free, whereas other centers may require health insurance or payment.

According to The Wall Street Journal, some colleges are adding online therapy programs, peer support groups and quick phone sessions to accommodate higher numbers of students seeking mental health services. Other colleges are responding by embedding mental health counselors within campus teaching buildings.

The Jed Foundation, a non-profit organization working to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among college and university students, has created The Campus Program. This program assesses and supports colleges in developing strategic plans for expanding their mental health services. More than 100 colleges are participating in the program.

While college can be an extraordinarily wonderful time of your life, the transition to college can be difficult. And while some strides have been made, many institutions struggle to keep up with changing conditions in the field of mental health. As such, it is important for all parents and students to be conscious of mental-health issues, and never be afraid to seek help if necessary.

For more information regarding the college journey, please feel free to contact us. We’re always happy to help.