Study: College Presidents Prioritizing Student Mental Health

As cases of student anxiety and depression skyrocket, top university officials are focusing more on these issues, according to a new report.

August 12, 2019
 

With college students reporting problems with anxiety and depression more than ever before, and suicides now a big problem on campuses, university presidents are responding accordingly.

More than 80 percent of top university executives say that mental health is more of a priority on campus than it was three years ago, according to a new report released today by the American Council on Education.

"Student mental health concerns have escalated over the last 10 years," the report states. "We wanted to know how presidents were responding to this increase. To assess short-term changes, we asked presidents to reflect on the last three years on their campus and whether they have observed an increase, decrease, or no change in how they prioritize mental health."

ACE, which represents more than 1,700 college and university presidents, surveyed more than 400 college and university leaders from two- and four-year public and private institutions. About 78 percent of those surveyed were at four-year universities, and the remainder led two-year institutions.

The association found 29 percent of all the presidents surveyed received reports of students with mental health issues once a week or more. About 42 percent of the presidents reported hearing about these problems at least a few times every month. As a result, presidents have allocated more funding to addressing student mental health problems -- 72 percent of the presidents indicated they had spent more money on mental health initiatives than they did three years ago. One unnamed president even reported spending $15 million on a new “comprehensive student well-being building.”

Hollie Chessman, a research fellow with ACE who helped draft the report, said the association wanted to assess how presidents were navigating the student mental health “crisis” and the types sorts of resources they were devoting to mitigate it. A recent study by the American Psychiatric Association found that in 2017 about 34 percent of students were being treated for some sort of mental health issue, compared to 19 percent of students in 2007.

Presidents surveyed by ACE said they heard about students’ problems with anxiety and depression the most. About 75 percent of presidents reported hearing about anxiety and depression the most frequently among mental health issues, with 23 percent of presidents saying suicide was one of the top problems on the campus. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

“We know that poor mental health hinders student academic success,” Chessman said. “I think it’s important that mental health and well-being be a campuswide priority, and it is for a lot of college presidents.”

The presidents also said they relied mostly on their top student affairs professional -- the vice president of student affairs or a person in an equivalent position -- to handle student mental health matters.

Roughly 92 percent of presidents said they depended the most on their vice president for student affairs and about 85 percent of presidents said they relied on student affairs executives.

“This wasn’t a surprise,” Chessman said. “It definitely speaks to the pressure that student affairs professionals are under.”

Some of the presidents’ choices as the go-to person on campus for mental health matters were surprising -- about 32 percent indicated that they relied on their campus police chief, and 27 percent said they relied on legal counsel.

Professors also spent more time dealing with mental health problems among students than they had three years ago, according to the presidents. About 82 percent of presidents said they agreed or strongly agreed that faculty devoted more time to student mental health than in previous years.

“The issues facing students have become more complex and time-consuming for faculty and staff to address,” one president said in the report. “It also involves multiple staff (student services, counseling, security, external resources, safety, legal) to develop a comprehensive plan to address.”

About 58 percent of presidents said they would add more staff to address mental health concerns, particularly in the campus counseling centers, if they had unlimited financial resources.

Across the country, these centers often report being overburdened as more students feel comfortable taking advantage of the mental health services provided, Chessman said. She noted that the increased use of these centers is a sign that perhaps the stigma about seeking help for mental health problems is lessening.

Chessman said she would like to see follow-up research on mental health programs and “best practices around these issues” in higher ed. For example, while writing the survey report, she found one institution that required all students, professors and staff at the university to receive “mental health first aid” training on how to handle mental health problems and crises on campus.

“It’s really important to know what all institutions are doing to address these issues,” she said.

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