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Why is Student Mental Health Important?
Collegiate student mental health is a growing concern to researchers, mental health professionals, and educators. In fact, some who study the issue call it a student mental health crisis, albeit one that often goes unrecognized until there is loss of life. College student mental health statistics bear out the reasons why. 75% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 24. Even more concerning, suicide is cited as the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34. Each suicide is a personal tragedy but one that also affects hundreds of other students, faculty, family, and friends. These facts tell us that universities and colleges have a unique opportunity, and faculty have a special responsibility, to create easy access to student-centric mental health services. Services that provide access to counseling and treatment while conditions are in their early stages and before symptoms become severe. And services that are preventative in nature- ones that build student resiliency and teach faculty, administrators, and students’ suicide about awareness and prevention.
Around the country, young people today are faced with social, educational, health, and financial obstacles and stressors that put them at greater risk of developing not only mental health issues but also acute or chronic health concerns. As well as creating debilitating distractions from academic work that can cause them to drop out of school and keep them from reaching their potential as contributing members of society. It is vital that teachers and professors prioritize the well-being of their students by educating themselves and adapting to a growing need for connection and support. Let’s look further at what faculty needs to know and what you can do.
What are the Statistics Around Student Mental Health?
Young adults are at risk for poor mental health. In any given year in the United States, 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 6 youth experience mental illness. Young adults 18-25 experiencing mental illness has been on the rise from 18% in 2008 to nearly 30% in 2019. Of these, nearly double experienced mental illness that was severe in nature (meaning an illness that substantially interferes with or limits major life activities) from 3.8% in 2008 to 8.6% in 2019. Young, college-aged adults have become the most vulnerable population in terms of mental wellbeing with rates of mental illness rising higher than that of any other age group!
The impact of COVID-19. The novel coronavirus pandemic has also affected student mental health. Many months following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, research literature increasingly demonstrates the staggering impacts on the already concerning college student mental health crisis. Studies show that around 70% of students report COVID has negatively impacted their mental health and caused increased stress, anxiety, and depression. One study of 182 undergraduate students across major U.S. universities found that an alarming 20% cited thoughts of suicide in the past month.
The impact of student stressors. Students report worrying about their grades, their health, social interactions, and financial stress including mounting student loan debt and uncertainty about loan forgiveness. Not to mention future job prospects. Increased stressors and an uptick in rates of anxiety and depression have resulted in disrupted sleep patterns, difficulty concentrating, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and increasing concerns over academic outcomes. Increased stress can ultimately affect students’ physical health and their retention as a student at their college or university. The following table details students’ commonly reported symptoms and reactions to daily stressors.
Figure 1 Participants’ ratings on mental health aspects in an order of negative impacts (mild, moderate, and severe).
A need for more accessible student mental health services. While mental health issues are a widespread concern, 62% of young people aged 18-25 report an unmet need for mental health services in the past year. While many universities have begun offering virtual mental health services to students as a safe alternative to in-person counseling, only around 7% of students report using school counseling since the onset of the pandemic despite many (71%) being interested in utilizing the service if it was offered. Many colleges and universities, graduate schools, and even medical schools offer no Student Assistance Programs. Or only offer supportive counseling services through an often inadequately resourced, on-campus counseling center that affords minimal privacy.
The accommodation gap for students with mental health disabilities. A 2020 survey conducted by Mental Health America found that only 50% of students with mental health disabilities seeking academic accommodations were registered to receive them, despite meeting eligibility criteria. Students reported several barriers to accessing accommodation services including underpromotion from campus staff and fear of being stigmatized by educators and classmates. While many professors are understanding, one in four students who did not register for disability services reports they are afraid to bring the topic up with their professors. Fearful that doing so would have negative repercussions academically or would bring ridicule. Eligible students often report negative responses or refusals when requesting reasonable accommodations from their professors.
How Can I Help My Students?
Considering these facts, it is crucial to consider what a professor or teacher’s main responsibility is to a student with emotional or mental health problems. Educators must recognize that these challenges both exist and have the potential to negatively impact academic success. As leaders, educators are granted the opportunity to advocate for students’ well-being and to foster a campus culture of inclusion, compassion, and support.
Figure 2 Participant’s rating on the appeal of virtual services should their school make them available.
An educator’s responsibility to their students includes taking steps to:
- Educate yourself. When students were asked what they thought was the best way for colleges to improve inclusion, nearly 70% reported a need for training to help educators better understand mental health. Colleges and universities that offer such trainings may consider mandating educator attendance and ongoing learning. If you are an educator at a school that does not offer training on student mental health, consider advocating for such training or seeking out continuing education through sources outside of your school.
- Promote messages that counteract stigma. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health continues to be an enormous barrier to many in need of help. Educators must make a conscious effort to keep an open mind, use inclusive language, and encourage open discussion about mental health in the classroom.
- Make yourself available (even in a virtual world). In a 2020 survey, The Jed Foundation found that more than half of undergraduate students report that regular check-ins with professors would help alleviate symptoms of stress, anxiety, isolation, and depressive thoughts. Whether you are offering classes virtually or face-to-face, routinely setting aside time for one-on-one interaction with students is an essential and no-cost helpful step faculty can take to support student mental health.
- Listen to your students. Surveyed feedback is one of the greatest tools an educator has in their toolbelt. Allow students the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback throughout the year to understand the evolution of needs, both emotional and academic. Show students that feedback is taken seriously by implementing swift changes to classroom dynamics. These efforts go a long way in securing student trust and setting the stage for success.
- Refer students to the Student Assistance Program (SAP) if you have one. Student Assistance Programs, like the ones provided by Espyr, offer 24/7 access to a professional counselor and referrals for short-term counseling at no cost to the student. These confidential programs parallel Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), long a mainstay of employer support for workforce mental health in the governmental and private sectors. SAPs are designed to remove barriers to accessing help early on when problems are more easily addressed and before issues and conditions worsen. Incorporate information about the SAP into your syllabus so that students are aware of the program and know how to privately access services. Help normalize the use of supportive resources. Keep in mind that SAPs also offer presentations and trainings to help faculty, administrators, and students learn about mental health issues, how to support each other, and how to build and support individual resiliency. Suicide awareness and prevention services are also invaluable but sometimes underutilized contributions by SAPs. If your campus doesn’t have an SAP, advocate for one now and before a tragedy highlights the need.
Traditional college-age young people are a vulnerable population as demonstrated by research that looks especially at the stressors students face, and their reactions to them. It’s not an overstatement to say young people face a mental health crisis today. One that threatens not only their sense of well-being but their academic careers and even their lives. Faculty can and must play an important role in assisting their students’ mental health. They can do so on a micro-level by educating themselves about student mental health, by making themselves available to check in with students, by listening to students, and by combatting social stigma both in word and deed. On a macro level, faculty must be advocates for the allocation of adequate institutional resources for student mental services, including a robust, confidential, and accessible Student Assistance Program.
About the Author
Lauren Drake is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and head of Internal Learning, Development, and Clinical Care at Espyr. Lauren has worked in the field since 2013 and has experience across several domains including substance use, mental health, public schooling, relationships, and EAP. She is authored in scientific journals for research on topics such as adoption, childhood development, and cultural competency.
- National Alliance on Mental Health. (2021, March). Mental Health by the Numbers. https://www.nami.org/mhstats.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. PEP20-07-01-001, NSDUH Series H-55). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/.
- Son, C., Hegde S., Smith, A., Wang, X., & Sasangohar, F. (2020). Effects of COVID-19 on College Students’ Mental Health in the United States: Interview Survey Study. J Med Internet Res 2020;22(9). 10.2196/21279. Retrieved August 18, 2021 from https://www.jmir.org/2020/9/e21279.
- Active Minds. (2020, September). Student Mental Health Survey. https://www.activeminds.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Student-Mental-Health-Data-Sheet-Fall-2020-1.pdf.
- The Jed Foundation. (2020, October). Survey of College Student Mental Health in 2020. https://www.jedfoundation.org/survey-of-college-student-mental-health-in-2020/.
- Mental Health America. (2020). Supporting College Students: Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education. https://mhanational.org/sites/default/files/MHA%20College%20Report%202021.pdf?eType=ActivityDefinitionInstance&eId=c4c16810-531d-4824-a9cf-af059eb58c91.
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