Managing Mental Health on College Campuses

Though psychological and mental health problems have been a part of our social fabric for centuries, the past few years have seen a significant uptick in the reported occurrences of depression, bipolar disorder, and other similar ailments among American college students. Some scholars suspect that this owes at least in part to improved pharmaceuticals: with proper treatment, more and more people who suffer from mental health issues are able to function at a high enough level to attend college.

There are also questions when it comes to the pressure that modern students face, however. Increased competition and a sluggish job market can leave many students vulnerable to feelings of futility, worthlessness, and hopelessness that can, over time, morph into more serious problems. The good news is that more and more colleges and universities are identifying this trend, and are looking for ways to help all students lead healthy, balanced lives. Many are still struggling to find the right equilibrium, though. Some academic concessions are necessary to help these students succeed, but this must be weighed against the need to prepare them for a future in what so often is a harsh and unforgiving outside world.

A Rising Concern on Campuses Nationwide

American colleges and universities began to notice a shift in the mental health needs of their students sometime in the mid-1990s. Nearly every school has a counseling center where students can seek help for a variety of issues; counselors are usually equipped to handle a range of mental health concerns, but in the early days of the ’90s, these sorts of needs were rare when compared to the students who, while otherwise healthy, needed help balancing their schoolwork with their social calendar, or needed counseling on relationship or family issues. Today, the predominant issues that these centers handle relate to depression, anxiety, or other serious medical concerns.

The Grad School Connection

This surge in mental health concerns is most often discussed through the lens of the undergraduate experience. In many ways this makes sense — there are more students in this sample group, for one thing, and the impact on higher learning as a whole is most acute here. Of note also, however, is how these trends extend into graduate-level learning. Today’s grad students are among the most academically motivated people in the nation. Most are committing the early years of their adult lives — years when many of their peers are beginning to establish their career roots and starting to save money for things like a house or retirement — to higher learning. Reports about the still struggling economy are hard to escape, which may be pushing some fragile grad students over the edge. Dedicating a life to learning only to find debt and unemployment at the end of the road is never particularly uplifting.

“At the University of California at Berkeley, 67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide,” said a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that only 9.5 percent of the working American adult population has these same feelings.

Appropriate Institutional Intervention

Most schools have upped the numbers of their trained mental health counselors in response to the trend. Simply providing counseling and therapeutic services is rarely enough, however. Most of the time, struggling students also require an attitude of flexibility when it comes to assignment deadlines and class attendance.

In order to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, universities are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to students with documented disabilities — and many mental illnesses count. This often manifests in deadline extensions and “free passes” when it comes to missed lectures and seminars. Counseling centers at a number of schools help prep or coach students in how to negotiate with professors to get the schedule modifications they need. While this sort of flexibility often makes a huge difference, there remains an argument that it might, in the long run, actually be a disservice.

David Cozzens, dean of students and associate vice president of student affairs at the University of Wyoming, told The Wall Street Journal that holding students’ hands now might actually be unfair when it comes to preparing them for the increasingly competitive job market. “There’s the danger that we take too much care and when they hit the real world that same kind of support isn’t there,” he said. “One of the goals of college, after all, is to prepare students for the working world. And not every boss may be OK with a blown deadline for a critical client report, no matter the reason.”

Support Initiatives

A number of schools have launched student-led support initiatives to help those who struggle find appropriate outlets. Peer listeners and judgment-free support groups are often a part of this. While routine counseling and medication is often required to clinically treat mental health conditions, there is a lot to be said for self-care, as well. This can be as simple as taking charge of scheduling to make sure that there is some “down time” in each day — time to take a walk, hit the gym, or watch a fun movie. Self-care is one of the best ways to balance the stress of a high-intensity academic life.

That more and more college-aged kids are struggling with mental health issues is a serious concern for society. In order to build a strong future, we need to ensure that our graduates ready for jobs, both mentally and academically. Taking charge of the situation now, be it through more proactive counseling or deeper looks into the roots of these issues, is one of the smartest things we can do.

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