Over the past decade, campus mental health has bloomed into a crisis, with rates of depression and anxiety symptoms more than doubling. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the problem, with over 60% of college students meeting the criteria for at least one mental health issue in the 2020-21 school year. Now, a new report from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and UWill, an online counseling platform for colleges and universities, has shown that mental health is continuing to decline.
The report is based on survey responses from student affairs leaders at over 100 institutions, representing more than 150,000 students. The results were unambiguous: 72% of respondents believed that student, faculty, and staff mental health had gotten worse over the past year. 43% said that their greatest challenge was the increased severity of the mental health issues that they were facing.
Although students may have returned to campuses, the pandemic is still having an effect, according to Dr. John Dunkle, senior director of learning and knowledge at the JED Foundation (JED), a non-profit focusing on young adult mental health and suicide prevention.
“We’ve been traumatized as a nation,” he said. “I think we’re trying to figure out how we reach a new normal.”
Students may be struggling with reconnecting after being isolated, with having lost loved ones, and with the financial impacts of the pandemic. The most common leading stressors in the NASPA survey were personal or family life issues and financial or debt issues, both identified by 76% of respondents. 44% said that COVID concerns were most prominent, and an equal percentage said that the biggest stressor was students meeting their own basic needs.
On the plus side, stigmas surrounding mental health seem to be decreasing. 93% of respondents thought that students have become more comfortable talking about mental health. Just 4% said that stigma was a significant challenge.
“By and large, students are really talking about it more than the so-called adults on campuses,” said Dunkle. “That has resulted in them being more likely to want, and in some cases, demand more resources.”
It seems as though high-level administrators are aware. 87% of survey respondents said that their college president believes that mental health is a leading priority, and 77% said that their campus increased its financial commitment to mental health this past year.
However, this awareness may not be enough. More than half of those surveyed believe that there’s significant room for improvement in responding to student mental health needs on their campuses, and 84% said funding should increase next year.
“It’s an old saying,” said Dunkle. “Where there’s a will, is there the wallet? Especially as enrollment is dipping, [schools] have to make some very tough choices about what they can and can’t provide.”
The well-being of university mental health workers is a concern as well. According to the survey, 67% said that burnout is worse this year, and an equal percentage said that their workload has gotten worse. 61% said that their salary concerns have worsened.
For Dr. Ryan Patel, chair of the mental health section of the American College Health Association and adjunct clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, the fix is simple.
“The staffing needs to increase,” he said. “The funding needs to increase.”
According to Patel, pressure on counseling centers can be relieved with an approach that involves all aspects of the institution.
“Every part of the university has a role in positively impacting the mental health of young people,” he said.
Wellness centers, for example, can provide health education and peer-led coaching. Dr. Sasha Zhou, an assistant professor at Wayne State University and principal investigator of the Healthy Minds Network, saw a role for professors.
“We’ve found that the vast majority of faculty really want to help, but they just don’t know how,” she said. “Even giving them a script to talk to students would be really helpful. There’s also a growing body of work showing that mental health could be integrated into the academic curriculum. Some schools have offered classes on well-being which foster [a] form of self-processing.”
Dunkle believes that college administrations can create programming to help students develop life skills and connect with each other. They can create crisis intervention policies to help students who are in distress. They can also expand their ability to offer therapy with telehealth, a modality which exploded during the pandemic.
Laura Horne, chief program officer at Active Minds, a non-profit focusing on student mental health advocacy, emphasized that, though funding new initiatives is important, it’s equally necessary to fund research and evaluation.
“We need to experiment with different things, but we also need to measure the results,” she said. “The telehealth example is a great one: are these services working in the way we expected them to? Is telehealth reducing disparity for students in how they access care?”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.