An 18-year-old freshman, overwhelmed at the start of the college semester, takes his own life. A 20-year-old intercollegiate athlete and academic all-star follows suit. A senior with a limitless future ends her life just weeks from graduation.
It is impossible to fully comprehend such tragedies, to understand why a young person would feel so lost that they would make the decision to end their life. But with suicides now the second leading cause of death for college students, it is incumbent on college leaders, along with our faculty members and students, to understand how we can make a difference and take action.
This fall, hundreds of thousands of students across the country are re-entering campus life. Most of them will be facing general stressors and anxieties that come with being a college or university student.
Some students will thrive under these circumstances, while others will struggle. The latest report from the Healthy Minds Study indicates that four in 10 students have positive mental health and are flourishing on our campuses. Yet suicidal thinking, severe depression and rates of self-injury among college students in the United States more than doubled in less than a decade. According to the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, the number of students who have had a previous diagnosis or treatment for depression has increased from about 9 percent in 2009 to over 20 percent in 2019.
Mental health and well-being among students is a serious and complex problem and should not be the sole purview of our campuses’ counseling centers. Counseling centers play an integral role, of course, but they can’t be the only office on campus responsible for students’ mental health. Administrators and faculty and staff members all have a role to play in ensuring that students are not only surviving but also thriving.
To their credit, senior college and university leaders recognize these rising mental health challenges. A recent American Council on Education survey found that more than 80 percent of college presidents indicate mental health is more of a priority on their campus than it was three years ago. Nearly two-thirds of deans that the Council of Graduate Students surveyed last year said they strongly agreed or agreed that current graduate students struggle to maintain their mental health more than students five years ago. Both organizations and other higher education associations have been engaging in conversations with their own members to help leaders acquire the tools and resources they need to tackle this issue at the systemic level.
We know there can be barriers to effective support and care, and that different groups of students have distinct needs. The necessary kinds of support and access may differ, depending on whether those students are LGBTQ, students of color, low-income, international or graduate students. But there are ways for campuses to develop the services and infrastructures to identify and assist students who are struggling.
A Comprehensive Approach
Jefferson Community College, located in rural upstate New York, has fully integrated physical and mental health services for their students, many of whom are low income, for example. In addition to physicians and counselors, the Health and Wellness Center also provides comprehensive services that include emergency transportation services, emergency childcare vouchers, an on-campus food pantry, application assistance for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and housing assistance.
The ACE survey asked college presidents what they’d do first if they had unlimited resources to dedicate to student mental health and well-being on campus. More than half wrote that they would hire additional staff members, mostly in the counseling center.
The reality is, however, that most administrators do not have unlimited resources. As Billie Wright Dziech, professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, noted in an op-ed article for Inside Higher Ed recently, there are many obstacles to addressing these challenges, and, at times, they can seem insurmountable.
That is why it is necessary to promote a comprehensive, multifaceted preventive approach. To address mental health outside the counseling center doors, national initiatives such as Mental Health First Aid and upcoming WellStart are aimed at training students and faculty and staff members to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Those programs are one example of how institutions are making mental health the concern of the entire campus community.
We should also note here that the goal should not be to eliminate stress entirely. We know some level of stress is healthy and actually promotes learning. But faculty members can incorporate well-being practices into their course work and model appropriate coping skills. For instance, since sleep is vital for maintaining mental health, instructors could reconsider making assignments due at midnight.
Not only are faculty and staff members integral to addressing this issue, both undergraduate and graduate students are key partners in creating a campus culture that promotes student flourishing. Recent research by the Rand Corporation has shown that student involvement in groups like Active Minds empowers students to be highly effective at shifting campus culture to be supportive of mental health, while also helping to reduce stigma.
Vanderbilt University’s Graduate School has developed a Mental Health Bill of Rights and Responsibilities to outline the university’s and students’ roles in the mental health care process. Vanderbilt commits to providing several services, including assigning an individual care coordinator to each student seeking mental health services from the university. The coordinator will assist the student in understanding, navigating and accessing the resources within the network and will also provide referrals to external providers.
Some institutions may want to consider using their pre-matriculation process and data to assess student mental health before they arrive on campus, pairing students with mentors or providing resilience courses to support those students who may need additional support. Other campuses have created early-alert systems to allow faculty and staff members an opportunity to identify students who need assistance before they are in crisis.
The entire campus community can and should be instrumental in the prevention and early treatment of mental health issues, and can do so independently without federal requirements, permitting the flexibility that is reflective of the diversity of postsecondary institutions.
A Comprehensive Network
Task No. 1 for all members of the campus community? Talk more frankly and openly about student mental health and well-being and create programs and resources that actively promote well-being. Campuswide efforts are imperative to tackling this serious problem.
Another consideration? Include student mental health as part of the institutions’ strategic plan. In the ACE survey, more than 83 percent of presidents indicated student well-being was part of their strategic plan, but only 43 percent of those presidents said mental health was specifically mentioned. Actively building mental health into an institution’s strategic plan can signal that mental health is a key priority for the campus community.
Kent State University, for example, has integrated mental health and well-being as part of its strategic plan. Kent State of Wellness promotes mental health, preventive care, safety, nutrition, physical activity, alcohol and drug abuse services, and other campus wellness initiatives to provide a comprehensive approach to well-being on campus.
The increased focus on student mental health and well-being is not unique to the U.S. At the recent CGS Strategic Leaders Global Summit, graduate education leaders from around the world agreed on the need for colleges and universities to take action. They discussed coordinating programs and practices across campuses, developing and implementing strategies to identify students in need of support, and establishing clear pathways to available services.
A student in mental health distress may or may not be able to ask for help, and we know that more and more students are facing problems they cannot solve themselves. The goal of campus leaders should be to put in place an effective and innovative campuswide network of friends, mentors, advisers and services that is equipped to teach, reach, support and assist students with their personal and academic success. We can lead the way in what is truly a life-or-death matter.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24-7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information and local resources. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).